A/N: This is a story based on an amalgamation of AiW movies which feature appearances from fictionalized versions of Charles Dodgson, as well as bits and pieces culled from "The Annotated Alice." (Apparently I only do research for fanfiction.) Anyway, although certain things depicted in this story did actually happen in real life, this is in no way representative of RPF. Just so we're clear on that. The poem about the Dean and Mrs. Liddell is not mine, though I'm not sure who it belongs to. All the real things, ie. not mine, are taken from "The Annotated Alice".
With A White Stone
"Well, now that we have seen each other," said the Unicorn, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?"
He had the dream again, and woke up fearfully from it. It's not so much the falling down the rabbit hole, but more the landing that worried him. He rose to face himself firmly in the mirror, his pale face a curiousity of design; less a marvel, he thought, more a menace.
"Now look here, Dodgson," he told himself sternly. "It's a question of focus. You're a man, not a rabbit."
His reflection, wisely, said nothing, and so he went on in to breakfast.
Liddell appeared along with the eggs, a surprising enough departure from the norm to bring a faint flush to Dodgson's thin cheeks. The Dean said his hellos in an uncharacteristically jolly manner, and seated himself, not at the head of the table, but to Dodgson's left.
"Good morning, Dean Liddell."
"Ah, good morning, good morning, my dear fellow." The Dean beamed at the younger man, a bit absentmindedly. "Did enjoy having you for tea the other day."
In the manner of cannibals, thought Dodgson, but he was capable of controlling his tongue, if not his thoughts, and so he said only, "I enjoyed being had, my dear Dean. Such a delightful day."
"Indeed." The Dean knocked against his water glass with a confiscated sugar spoon, ruminatively. "The children tell me you told them a story."
"Mm." Dodgson smiled, just a little, and touched his serviette to his lips, his hands quick and nervous. "A poor tale, I'm afraid, intended only to amuse and divert from the unseasonably warm weather. Alice got the worst of it, I'm afraid."
"Nonsense, she seemed quite enraptured. Couldn't get her to stop chattering about it." A fact which Dodgson privately doubted. Alice, it must be supposed, had reserves of chatter somewhere deep within, but as yet they were largely untapped. In most company the girl was shy and quiet; the personal rapport he seemed to have established was something of a triumph. "Something about white rabbits in waistcoats, and a murderous queen."
The Dean's tone was faintly disapproving.
"Not quite murderous," amended Dodgson, looking up. "That is, murderous in intent, if not in action. She demands, but does not always receive, you see."
"Ah, a worthy lesson for spoiled young girls," acknowledged the Dean, with a dry little chuckle. "Then she cannot be based on our own regent, I suppose," and Dodgson hesitated slightly too long before he said, "No, no, of course not. It would be silly, wouldn't it, to take inspiration for such outrageous characters from real life."
It wasn't lying, he told himself— not the bad sort of lie, at any rate. The Dean was fiercely loyal, a man at ease in his time and place; he saw nothing wrong with the foibles of the modern world which bothered Dodgeson so. Such complacency was reflected in the attitudes of his eldest daughter and, to a lesser extent, the middle one as well; but not in Alice, Dodgson considered gratefully. Not in delightful little Alice.
"Not so spoilt, I'd say," he muttered, willing to be generous. "Such charming children you're raising. Lorina is quite the hostess."
"Sixteen next year," rumbled the Dean, eyeing Dodgson's eggs skeptically. "Her mother has trained her well."
"Indeed." Dodgson stirred his eggs with his fork. The remains of Humpty, he thought. Humpty Dumpty, gen'rous to a fault; makes breakfast each morn, so please pass the salt. He kept this thought to himself as well. The Dean looked perturbed as it was. "And Edith seems predisposed to follow in her footsteps. She was very preoccupied with the correct way to fold the serviettes. Quite drove Elsa to distraction, I believe."
At this the Dean beamed. Elsa was his pet, having trained as a housemaid since little more than a child. Liddell took much of the credit for her impeccable ways, leaving none for his wife and precious little for Elsa herself.
It remained only to comment on Alice, and surely Dodgson's political duty would then be seen to. But he could not quite bring himself to speak on the youngest of the Dean's daughters, it seemed to presumptuous; and so merely waited for the Dean to mention the girl himself. But the Dean was now focused on the myriad prides of Elsa, and how gleefully she campaigned for the silverware to be arranged in the older, more dignified style as opposed to these newfangled habits of fork here, knife there, spoon perhaps in someone else's plate— in the silence of his mind, Dodgson repeated verses he'd heard from a child's lips, last Tuesday week. Shortly before his invitation to tea, on a visit to the Dean's home, Alice had quite spitefully gifted them to him, thus:
Elsa, O! my Papa's maid:
Who cares about how silver's laid?
What diff'rence does it make to me?
I wish that you would bring our tea!
Brilliant Alice, darling Alice, bright and shining Alice! Dodgson covered his smile with his hand. It would not do to encourage such irreverence, such lack of respect for her elders; but he could not help but think of it when he told the girls the story of Alice's adventures in Wonderland, and it had, perhaps, seeped out a little.
I'll be judge, I'll be jury,
said cunning old Fury.
I'll try the whole cause, and
Condemn you to death.
Perhaps not quite appropriate for such young children; then again, he speculated, the earlier they learned, perhaps it was for the better—
"What do you think of that, Dodgson?"demanded the Dean, somewhat querulously; it having dawned on him only recently that perhaps his audience was not as keen as he would have liked. Dodgson roused himself from his poetic stupor and raised his glass to his lips, to buy himself some time.
"I'd quite like to marry Alice, someday," he said, then, and accidentally set his glass down in his plate in his surprise.
The Dean looked no less amazed at this unprepared speech.
"I beg your pardon?" It seemed, impossibly, that the Dean had given him a chance to withdraw; to blame it on a slip of the tongue, a frog in his throat, a blankness of mind. But Dodgson, retrieving his glass from among the flattened eggs, couldn't quite bring himself to recant. It was perfectly true, after all. And he was in something of a position of authority in the college; he couldn't very well go about lying, could he?
I dreamed that what I said was true:
the sky is brown, the earth is blue
life is too brief, and though I try
I cannot bring myself to lie.
"Well," he said, carefully, and stuttering only a little, "I suppose I mean it as something of a compliment, my dear Dean. Such a bright and charming girl. So well-behaved, such original thought."
"Yes, fellow, but quite some twenty years younger than you, I should think, and a child still," said the Dean, who could not make up his mind to be angry or not. Dodgson paused a moment longer, then admitted the truthfulness of this.
"Although the charming thing about children," he went on, "is that they grow to youth; and the sad thing about youths is that they become adults, sooner or later. So she shall not always be a child."
The two men sat together in a less-than-comfortable silence, until Dodgson shifted in his seat and pushed his plate away.
"Although," he said again, and his tone was reluctant, and sad, and resigned. "Although, I don't suppose she will ever be anything less than twenty years younger than I. I quite see your point, Dean."
The younger man's acknowledgment loosened the Dean's spine somewhat, and Liddell relaxed a bit into his chair, and drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "Quite so."
"Quite," said Dodgson again, meekly, his voice very small.
"Well! My wife did enjoy your company very much, Dodgson, and she has instructed me to invite you to tea once more, Tuesday week. Perhaps you could see fit to share some of your verses with us."
Dodgson looked at sideways at Dean Liddell for a moment; the terms of the request were quite clear. Mrs. Liddell was a determined woman, unafraid of asking for what she fancied, and he would be welcome at their house as long as she liked him. His friendship with the Dean, on the other hand, had been irreparably damaged by his conversational blunder, and though it could be patched, perhaps, it would take some time.
Still, there was always tea time.
"I should like that very much," he managed at last.
"Or perhaps," said the Dean, thoughtfully, "we would be privileged to hear some of the story which you related to my daughters. Adventures underground, was it?"
"Underground, yes. Wonderland, I called it."
"I see. Wonderland. Well, as you see fit, Dodgson."
"Yes. Thank you, sir."
The Dean pushed himself away from the table and strode from the room; Dodgson tapped his fingers to his lips and thought. Someone had written a line or two, it seemed, about the Dean and his wife. It went something like—
I am the Dean, and this is Mrs. Liddell
She plays the first, and I the second fiddle
Dodgson chuckled a bit, weakly. Students, no doubt. He rose from his place and meandered thoughtlessly through classrooms for a bit, letting the walk wash all thoughts of the Dean from his mind, replacing such considerations with diverting adventures such as might be enjoyed by a young girl in a strange and altogether unfamiliar world. Only when he heard the clock strike was he recalled to the present; hauling his watch from its pocket, he saw that it read, somewhat whimsically, one minute to three. Some five hours wrong, of course, and practically useless.
Late again, Dodgson thought, hurrying on his way. Late yet again— and again.
The intervening week passed quickly by, and on Tuesday, shortly before teatime, Dodgson made his way to the front door and was quickly admitted by Soames, who'd been watching for him. Mrs. Liddell welcomed him outstretchedly, by which Dodgson surmised that his inadvertent slippage of the tongue had not been mentioned to her; or, at least, not yet. The Dean, too, was in a jolly, if somewhat watchful, mood, and seemed predisposed to take the untoward comment lightly. Dodgson was grateful for it.
Two children were present; grown-up Lorina and aspiring Edith, both of them with their elbows firmly off the table and their cheeks properly pink, smiling at him with no great joy and passing remarks on the weather.
"Oh, and we did so enjoy your story last week," Lorina put in as an afterthought; there was no request for repetition, and the Dean and Mrs. Liddell merely stirred their tea complacently. Dodgson felt a wary, half-bemused smile cross his face.
"Certainly, certainly," he murmured. "Ever glad to be of service to the forces of Youth. And we can't have three such charming children bored, now, can we? Speaking of which— where is Alice?"
Mrs. Liddell sighed heavily and rapped her spoon against her cup with surprising violence. "She has put Elsa quite out of sorts with her antics, I do declare! Poor Elsa. To think of the silverware being rumpled so!"
"Rumpled silverware?" questioned Dodgson, eyebrows rising despite himself. "I should like to see such a thing, I must say."
"Oh, you know what I mean, Mr. Dodgson. One cannot always think of the right word, can one? And there's no doubt the silver was quite out place. It took poor Elsa hours to put it to rights again. Didn't it, Elsa?"
Poor Elsa, standing just inside the door, merely straightened her shoulders. "That's right, marm." It wasn't proper for a servant to carry on conversation whilst the master and mistress were at tea; and it certainly wasn't right for Mr. Dodgson to stare at her so, his lips twitching as though he were keeping laughter inside.
"And so Alice is confined to her room until further notice." Mrs. Liddell flicked her spoon away from the cup again, spattering a drop or two of milky tea on the tablecloth. She paid it no mind. "It is a great punishment for her, I daresay, missing your visit."
"Too great a punishment, indeed. I should like to mitigate it, if I may, by visiting her afterwards."
Mrs. Liddell set her spoon down and looked for a clue from the Dean, who gave none. He was busily choosing amongst the tarts and cakes set out for tea. "I suppose, if you like," she said at last. "Elsa will show you to her room."
Elsa eyed young Mr. Dodgson suspiciously. A tart had disappeared without having been eaten, and his napkin had suddenly acquired a distinctly lumpy shape. But his thin face was innocent, and he was taking tea in quite a gentlemanlike fashion. He took care to inquire after the health of Mrs. Liddell's elderly mother, and how Edith was getting on with her arithmetic lessons; one plus one plus one plus one plus one having been found to be five, the meal concluded shortly thereafter and Dodgson rose and flung his napkin on the table.
"My most grateful thanks for your hospitality," he said, and bowed. "Perhaps I might take a moment now and chat with the prisoner in her cell?"
He was led to the door, and waited for Elsa's departure before rapping on it gently.
"Who's there?" came the muffled voice of Alice from within; muffled from distance and the wooden panels, undoubtedly, but muffled from another cause as well. Dodgson laid his hand against the door.
"Only a Unicorn," he said. "Come to inquire about milady's health, and to see if a touch of the magic horn would help in the least."
Alice flung the door open, wreathed in smiles the way June is wreathed in roses. Dodgson smiled back and stepped inside in response to her beckon.
"I didn't think they would let you, I didn't! I knew you were to come today, and I begged and begged Mama to let me out for tea. But she wouldn't, she was so—"
"Furious?" filled in Dodgson, seating himself on the wide windowsill.
"Distraught," said Alice decidedly; as young as she was, she habitually chose her words with care and did not like to have them chosen for her. She stood before Dodgson, hands behind her back, and shook her head. "You don't look much like a Unicorn, I must say."
"I've been enchanted," said Dodgson promptly.
"However, you do seem to have an answer for everything. And I daresay Unicorns must, after all. They have such a lot to answer for as it is."
"Shall I nod my head and paw at the ground with my hooves? Would that convince you, my dear child?"
"Nonsense, you haven't any hooves." Alice went to the bedpost and put her arm around it as though it needed comforting. "And you mustn't rumple up the rag-rug, Mr. Unicorn."
"I must not indeed. Only think of the silverware! Decidedly rumpled, I'm told."
Alice smiled, so bright and hard that after a moment she squeezed her eyes shut and let it become a laugh. "I ought not to have done it, I suppose. But I am glad I did. Except for that they shut me up and I wasn't allowed out for tea. Oh, I am grateful, Unicorn, for your coming to see me." She let go of the bedpost and started impulsively towards him. "It doesn't seem quite so terrible, now. And— I never was sure that creatures like you existed, till now, that I've seen you." Her smile was a bow, a brief simple line, secretive and significant. Dodgson set careful hands on his knees, loose and ready.
"And I'd no idea that a creature like you existed, Child. Till now. That I've seen you." He let her smile at him a moment more, then stood and delved deep into his pocket. "Here, I've brought you something."
The cake was wrapped up in his handkerchief, and took some undoing. Once freed, the slightly squashed sweet was deposited in the child's hands, and Dodgson stood and watched her glee over the treat. Meditatively he licked icing off his fingers.
"Ah, this is a white stone day," said Alice, quite pleased with her present. Dodgson had told her of his habit, in his diary, of marking 'with a white stone' the days that contented him most. He agreed with the assessment. "I'm not sure if you're a Unicorn or a Magician," she told him, breaking a bit off. "But I do know that cake tastes so much better if you're not meant to be eating it."
"A universal truth," smiled Dodgson, with only a twinge of regret for having taught her this so early in life. But there, again! She would have learned it, sooner or later. And as for what she was destined to be, a woman grown, such a beautiful thing— perhaps the sooner she learnt it, the better, all the same.
"And now, do you sit here," he instructed her, and directed her to the window seat. "I've a good fifteen minutes before they come looking for me, and that's all the time in the world."
"Not when fourteen minutes have gone by," she pointed out pragmatically, and he acknowledged the truth of this.
"Here, then," he said, and retrieved his broken pocket watch from his vest. He put it into the small hand that wasn't holding the cake, and bent over her.
"It's broken," she said, holding it to her ear. "It doesn't tick."
"It's stopped," he corrected her. "It's holding time at bay. But even broken things are right, sometimes. This watch is right twice a day, for instance. Do you see that it says a moment before three?"
"But how do I know when it is a moment before three?" Alice questioned, looking up at him. "The clock won't tell me."
"Be patient," Dodgson advised quietly. "You know that when two-fifty-nine does come, your clock will be right. Is that not so?" He waited for her nod. "Very good; then your rule is this. Keep your eyes fixed on the clock, and at the very moment when it is right, it will be two-fifty-nine."
Alice tilted her head, and fixed her eyes on the clock. She didn't believe him, of course; she was too smart to believe him, he could tell by the angle of her lips, her indulgent smile. But she was willing to try, however— willing to see what would happen, should time be held at bay. He sank back down onto the window sill.
"And now, Alice," he said quietly, "we have time for a story. All the time we could possibly need. Where shall we begin?"
"With a game of chess," said Alice decidedly, eyes on the watch, which stood still and refused to move. "I would like to be a queen."
"And so you shall be," said Dodgson; he relapsed into thought, for a moment, and while the girl kept time at bay, the man spun the story. He spoke it calmly, and thoroughly, and allowed the meanders of the words to spin out and fill the room slowly, as if they were snowflakes. There was to be no hurry, no rush. He began at the beginning, went on to the end—
One thing was certain, that the white kitten had nothing to do with it— it was the black kitten's fault entirely. For the white kitten had been having its face washed by the old cat for the last quarter of an hour (and bearing it pretty well, considering); so you see that it couldn't have had any hand in the mischief—
Alice looked up at him, her face ashine and her eyes aglow.
"It's right," she said, and held the watch out to him, reverently.
"My dear," he began, but she shook her head.
"It's exactly right," she said. "But for a moment only, Mr. Dodgson. For this moment, only."
And she was perfectly correct, of course, Dodgson knew. Young Alice was breathless from the story, and in his head Alice was chasing the Red Queen across the chess board, and now, and here, inbetween words and inbetween worlds, the stopped watch was right and Time took a deep breath.
Dodgson echoed it.
The moment passed.