It was not long at all, and not terribly difficult at all, but that Alice had adjusted to life back aboveground. It was not that she sought to forget her time amongst a very odd set of characters, or that she had lost her imagination or creativity. It was more that she had simply become distracted—once she was back aboveground she really did wonder if she had dreamed it all or made it up in a drowsy afternoon attempt to drown out her sister's readings. It would have explained the peculiarly lesson-based conversations she had held, after all.
But no. Alice being older meant that things were changing—though not for the worse, it seemed. The world was changing and everyone was having to keep up. Hats and shoes had even more buttons and plumes, and soon she was having to wrestle into corsets in order to wear the sleek dresses everyone was questing to perfect—she joined her sisters' talk of cuirass bustles, princess sheaths, and the latest prints from the Continent. To be frank, she herself only really approved of the Artistic dress, with its lack of tightening and a tendency toward soft material flowing about her feet, but even that she could hardly get away with when her peers seemed to hold a mantra of high and tight. She could wear her strange dresses in the study before teatime and that was all. Alice tolerated having to be so careful about where she sat and how she stood, but fashion and appearance were an inevitable part of her world now. It helped that she got on better with her sisters when she managed to keep up with their nightly philosophical treatises on silks and lace, at least.
Alice was not as obsessed as her sisters, but even with her detached air regarding sausage curls and overskirt ruching, the world outside of books and daydreams did consume a great deal of her time. She left her childhood with a cautious grace. No one found this strange or unfair, and to be sure, Alice herself managed to pay attention as she attended perfectly normal balls, theater, and garden parties (with proper wooden croquet mallets in place of petulantly limp flamingos). There were still the books in her father's study, and opportunities to glean something off trips to the Continent with friends, and so Alice settled in to the normalities of life outside her own head and was relatively content.
She found the opera to be engrossing, but the other formal events were only means of passing time for a younger sister without much to qualify her unto the teeming masses except for her pretty head and sweet voice. Yes, surely, she did have an excellent education, but what was that when a personification of beauty kept her mouth shut? Those around her were judgmental, and although they highly prized silence from a woman, it was a false shyness and simplicity of mind they wanted, not the strange tight-lipped way Alice had about her, letting her tea cool in the sylvan shade of a fading afternoon and revealing nothing with her impassivity.
Even now, as she was returning to the seven-eaved blue and white house at the end of the street, Alice's features were markedly—but pleasantly—neutral. She was not thinking of a secret, or a novel thing of an idea, or what she might wear to an upcoming dance, or even pineapples, but instead concentrating on the way the stringed packages pulling against her fingers were bouncing together in a rhythmic sort of way. She was about to complete a thought regarding the musical nature of their sound when she drew up to the fence outside her house and stopped.
It was not an abrupt stop, nor was it one that denoted any shock. She simply stopped, as though she had thought of something that was enough to make her stop. And indeed there was something to make Alice stop, though it was not inside her head. She found herself, however, hoping that it was, because the thing that made Alice stop was peculiarly familiar, as if it were something she was not supposed to think of or know about because of all the other things that were associated with it.
The object sitting on one of the fence posts just next to the gate, as though it had been hung there to mark the house, was what made Alice stop so gracefully, her packages coming to the same stop with a curiously light clattering sound only boxes produce that soon faded. She shifted the packages around on her fingers and reached out to pick it off the fencepost, opening the gate with a distracted air and stepping through as she did. As she approached the porch she glanced around her, looking for the thing's owner. There was no one, no one who would have set such an unusual object on a fencepost with a silent promise to return for it in just a tic. Alice released the packages onto the whitewashed decking and turned the object round to have a better look at it.
It was a hat. A huge hat. A strange hat. It was unusually large in that it had a very high crown, and bizarrely odd in that it was an off-putting shade of green, with the whole thing done in an unfashionably old style. These things alone would have been enough to make any self-respecting woman draw herself up and declare, "I say!" But there was something else about the hat which made Alice raise her eyebrows and look about her once more, peering through the slatted fence around the porch into the dark bushes. It was the large piece of paper tucked into the crown-band that she recognized, and Alice now frowned as she looked out at the quiet street stretching out before her and the lawn, empty in the midday sunlight but for a few lazy bugs trawling up like steam vents.
There was nothing for it. Resolving to search the kitchen and back garden, Alice gathered up her packages and the unusually large hat, opened the door, and overcautiously peered into the foyer. She dropped the packages and hat, which rolled into the center of the room and righted itself in a few spins, and came forward to peer into the sitting room. The dark red settees and filigreed chairs were empty, and there were no suspicious shadows behind the piano. A movement to the north made her jump; only when she realized it was her own reflection did she pause to collect herself. Alice crossed the room to look around her with more certainty.
"There is no one here," she said with distinction into the large mirror with the gold frame. Her reflection gazed back at her silently with the knowledge that in life, it was often best to let others figure things out for themselves.
It was her parents' summer house, settled in a small village, cutting off the road by its simple existence. A house at the end of the street was a strange thing indeed. The space there seemed to open the place up to possibilities, where at other homes there were fences that did not lead off like words in the middle of a sentence. Here there was nowhere else to go but inevitably forward through the house and into the back garden, where one could see through a small thicket of trees that dropped off to become a large hill extending down into the countryside and another town far beyond.
Alice had felt so odd; now she had unwrapped her packages and strung up a hammock with some cushions between two trees in the slow incline beyond the house. Here it was cool and shady, and she was not going to think but instead read some strange novel whereupon the first chapter led her around in circles, calling upon her to make herself comfortable, that the book was the wondrous new creation of its esteemed and illustrious author and that she must truly savor the first line of the book. It was thirty pages into this odd imploring and Alice began to drift off into sleep.
She dreamt she was floating in a space without gravity or noise—or perhaps she was falling into something, she did not know which. Existing there in the darkness Alice began to do the thing she had promised herself she would not, and began to think.
Perhaps it was the turning of her mind, but Alice's thoughts were trained on an image she had recently committed to memory, that of her older sister's face during her engagement party. She had been so... Alice didn't have a phrase for it. Superficially calm, without being perfectly and adoringly happy, but feeling and accepting a compromise gently leaning toward something like happiness. Alice had sat bolt upright during the announcements, and after the toast moved near a window to watch her marble-armed sister smile gentle approval at those assembled. Her detachment recommended her quite nicely to the aging relatives and society—it had always been part of her. She wore her heart quite delicately upon her sleeve, and all that was within her rested upon her features. Alice turned toward the window to hide her own frown, unwanted and likely to fetch unanimous disapproval at a formal occasion.
Now what? The now-smiling pair had not been arranged—they were acquaintances professed to be in love. The girl's suitor had sent her lilies-of-the-valley every day for the last three months and there was no avoiding a large and much-discussed wedding now. What sort of a man would send flowers to Alice? she wondered. She did not find them to be a terribly original idea, though she supposed the message behind the different types was interesting enough. Lilies-of-the-valley. What an absurd sort of flower—no color to add to anything, and on top of that they smelled awful. And what of men? Alice was not a fool; she had danced at balls with various partners and knew what men pretended to like to talk about. She had once held a highly questionable conversation in a conservatory with some devious Frenchmen and their companions, which was soon broken up by the arrival of a tut-tutting matron. It was this business of hiding one's intellect and emotions which bothered her—manners were all very well, but even her sisters sometimes seemed so formal. They made no effort to breach the lines of grown-up communications to ask her for a genuine opinion on anything besides clothing or their social calendar. Perhaps they did not understand her in turn, though.
And now Alice could see herself walking the perimeters of her father's study, running her fingers along the spines of the books. Her mother did not mind that she spent a few hours there each day as long as she was presentable and in attendance at formal events in the evening—that was their wordless bargain. Alice ordered all the books she liked from London and the Continent; her mother would not have known the difference if she were reading Middlemarch or The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It was there, in the study, where she found herself quite happy.
Presently however she began to make out a voice very far away singing something she could not quite understand, but as it began to grow nearer, she realized she did not feel the same sense of panic she often did at the end of a dream—that all was lost and everything would finish without her. Alice knew she was conscious and thought before she woke up that perhaps it was one of the neighbors come to call on her, but her ears came into focus on the voice.
"...at the risk of sounding ra-ther pla-ti-tu-di-nous," it slowly half-sang, "Here's what I believe should be the at-ti-tude-in-us." Here the voice gave a pause before starting up again, a dreamy and contemplative tenor, she realized.
It really doesn't pay
To be a gloomy pill
It's ab-so-lute-ly most ridic
The rain may pitter-patter
It really doesn't matter, said the voice sighing,
For life can be delish
With a sunny disposish.
She had opened her eyes without moving her head, and saw that there was someone else in the hammock with her, a man at the other end with his legs stretched out towards her but having had the decency to let his legs rest over the side of the netting, one foot in a toehold against the ground to rock the hammock. He was leaning back with the air of someone who has settled in for a long summer's rest, looking up into the trees and humming distractedly to himself with his eyes half-closed. She began to feel panic zinging up through her middle, and Alice began to think of things to say, ways to trap him in the netting and call for help. Yes, she could leap out, and—and, and twist it around him. That would work. She began to furtively look around, wondering if anyone would hear her screaming from the street up past the house.
All of Alice's wildly careening thoughts ceased, however, when she saw her own feet at the opposite end near the man's shoulder. Balanced quite pertly at the end of her shoe was a large cup and saucer. As Alice pondered the weighty significance of this new development, she sat up, her foot beginning to tip dangerously. The man deftly lifted the saucer and cup off her toes and looked down to regard her, mildly raising his eyebrows in acknowledgment. He drank the contents without looking away, set the saucer back on her toes, folded his hands over his chest, and smiled gently at her quite expectantly. He did this with aplomb and a grace only a madman can enjoy, for balancing saucers on ladies' dainty shoetips is an art few have taken the time to master.
"What ho, Alice!" he cried, apparently delighted at her fish-like stare.
There was a pregnant pause.
"What on earth are you doing here?" said Alice with no small amount of irritation. The man jerked his head back imperiously—the saucer rattling slightly against the teacup and the whole hammock giving a gentle heave—and seemed quite surprised that she should ask.
"What do you mean what am I doing here? I am quite surprised that you should ask," he replied in an affronted round tone. There was another pause, more delicate this time, and the man frowned slightly at her lack of reply in turn. "Your manners leave something to desired, you know. 'What on earth are you doing here'—very bad form, I am sure! Hardly a 'How-do-you-do-old-bean' or 'Cheery-pip-glorious-day-isn't-it', don't you think?" Alice gaped at him, but he continued.
"Moreover indeed, madam, I am frankly shocked and appalled that you should apparently not know the reason for my being here, and furthermore that you have ignored your duties as hostess, failing to welcome me properly into your—" he looked about and began again in earnest, his voice growing louder "—swinging net thing as a bosom friend and old acquaintance, and even now failing to offer me any form of refreshment as I believe is customary betwixt two persons in such a setting!" He said this last part very quickly as though he were running out of breath. Having finished triumphantly, the young man put his nose into the air and produced with flair a large teapot from beneath his—she now noticed—floridly orange coat. The hammock was rocking violently in the aftermath of all this, and her ankle was sore from where he had repeatedly driven his finger into it to make a point.
Alice ignored his speech, grabbing the netting around her to keep from falling out.
"If I may ask, why are you here, sir?" she tried again politely. The man looked up at her in the midst of pouring himself a third—or perhaps fourth, by now she could not really be sure—cup of tea, not moving the pot from where it hovered over a differently-patterned cup and saucer, still on her foot. The tea began to flow over the rim of the cup and onto the saucer, where it fanned out over and around her shoe, an umbrella of liquid caramel. Alice tilted her foot just forward to let the tea spill onto the ground. He gave her a thoughtful look, tilting his head to the side, and continued to let the tea flow.
"You had my hat," he said, and brandished it with a flourish before hanging it on the edge of her other shoe.
"Mad Hatter," she said slowly to herself, letting this tingling realization come over her. She had known his quirks, of course, but it was the name which had escaped her. How had she forgotten him? Alice swallowed in surprise. "Of course," she said. "Your hat. I... I had forgotten." The Hatter looked quite offended at this, and crossed his arms, still hanging onto the teapot and blinking at her shiningly.
"Well," he said in a quietly dramatic voice tinged with tears, "My heart is quite broken now, you know." He closed his eyes and took a deep, shuddering breath. Tragic.
"Oh, I am sorry," Alice began, "I couldn't have recognized you without—" she raised her hand above her head and started to gesture but abandoned her sentence at his look. He stared back at her in blatant curiosity, his theatrics apparently forgotten. Alice felt rather abashed being scrutinized so openly and in time began to take in his features. She had not noticed that his hair was both abundant and shockingly white in her previous travels, as his head had been mostly covered by the infamous article, but this fact could not and did not escape her notice now. Come to think of it, neither did any of his exaggerated features. Alice caught a blinding look at his coat which vivisected the blue curlicued waistcoat beneath, a set of freckles bespotting a round nose, and a pair of ice blue eyes that were still trained somewhere in her general direction, now glaring at her.
"Why did you steal it?"
"I didn't steal it, I found it."
"Yes you did, it was in your house. I had to climb in through a ruddy window to get it back."
"You broke into my house?" The Hatter suddenly looked rather defensive as the hammock took another abrupt heave.
"I have a great deal many things inside that hat which I consider to be of essential and utmost importance to my continued well-being—nay, my very existence! Whether or not your windows are unlocked, and whether or not I may or may not have 'broken into'" and here he flexed his index fingers in the air and rolled his eyes "your house is most certainly not the issue here," he replied with a lofty air.
"That is terribly bothersome of you, do you know that?"
"I'm only performing my duty."
"Oh, which is—?" she asked, sarcasm splattering everywhere.
"Spreading sweetness and light," he said reverently. Alice was not quite sure what bothered her more, the fact that he had the gall to claim he was more than just an irritation or the cheeky smile on his face.
"You're much bigger than I remember," he said conversationally, once again looking up into the trees.
"As are you," Alice replied slowly, gazing up what she could see of the house. She rather wished she had stayed inside and boarded up the windows, or at least accompanied her family to the seaside for the week.
"Yes, but I have not grown in the time since we have met. I have only changed and gotten larger. The two are not mutually exclusive, you know," he replied in turn. Alice frowned. The last thing she wanted on a relaxing summer afternoon was a series of convoluted discussions with a madman.
"You have not answered my question, Mr. Hatter," she said, and briefly wondered whether he would leave if she kicked his hat to the ground. Alice glanced up at him; he seemed to be counting the leaves on the elm tree overhanging them.
"And which question is that?" The Hatter plucked his eponymous item from her foot, perhaps reading her thoughts, and stuck his hand inside. Alice opened her mouth to answer and left it hanging there as she watched his arm disappear up to his shoulder inside the massive felt sky piece, digging amidst things that clanked and rattled together until—"Success!" he hollered, pulling out a scroll encircled by a bright red ribbon. "What were you saying?" said the Hatter calmly, looking interestedly at this new piece of literature and sipping a gently sloshing cup of tea.
"Why are you here?" Alice said insistently after shaking her head to clear it. The man could juggle tasks like a fool but not carry on a decent conversational thread for more than five seconds.
"I am here to impart unto you fantastic news," said the man, who was shaking the scroll free of its curl. He leaned forward with intent, tossed the ribbon at her, pulled a pair of reading glasses from an inner pocket, and took another sip of tea, proceeding to overlook the contents of his hat-derived missive. He hummed over it, apparently approving of what he read there, adding "Ah!"s and "I see what you did there"s as he went. Finally he looked up. "You are a very lucky girl," he said, folding his glasses with one hand and replacing them.
"I don't quite follow you," said Alice. The Hatter squinted about them at the empty lawn and the hills beneath, bemused.
"How can you be following me? We aren't moving," he said quietly.
"I—I mean I don't understand what you're talking about!" said Alice a bit louder than she had intended. She was rapidly approaching an unavoidable irascibility. The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this, but only handed her the letter before gleefully turning his attention back to the teapot. Alice read the letter, which was written in a squiggly script and went something along these lines:
Greetings to Miss Alice of the Upper Realms from Her Grace the Duchess. Her Grace gracefully requests that above mentioned personage be present at a reception in Her and her collective interest, whereupon details of proceeding arguments and and genuflections will be presented. Note well that her repeated presence in the realm will constitute her being given an official status, and that an immediate reply is beneficial to this station. She shall expect her soon. —Ministry of Her Grace the Duchess
Copier, can you throw in an illuminated monogram up top there, maybe some fire and destruction? Oh scratch that, Duchess tells me she'd rather have some flowers. Something decent. And tell the butler to get butter and cheese when he goes to market—Pigkeeper in the pantry says she's got nothing left to make sandwiches with except kippers and bologna, and that won't last us the weekend.
The rest of the letter was a series of tasks that had been hastily crossed off. Alice looked up—the Hatter had climbed out of the hammock and was adjusting his coat.
"Well, shall we?" he inquired, leaning over to retrieve his hat from the string netting.
"Shall we what?" He frowned at her.
"You really need to stop answering me like that. Shall we go." He made a definitive motion of going. Alice stared at him.
"No." This seemed to momentarily stun him.
"I'm not going."
"You aren't? Why not?"
"Go back down there?" He flicked a piece of dirt off his enormous hat in response. "Go back down there, when I have things to do here?"
"Like what?" Alice was caught only slightly off guard by this.
"In case this has escaped you, there is a house not one hundred yards from here that I am charged with looking after, and there are people in this world who would notice if I suddenly went missing."
"How do you know that for certain?" Alice nearly replied with "Beg your pardon?" but remembered the sort of results that phrase returned and thought better.
"How d'you know they'll know you've gone?" His question did not sound rhetorical in tone; rather, he seemed to be a bit curious.
"Surely they would notice if I were not here when they returned."
"Do you think it will take that long? After all, Time is relative. They could be having such a marvelous time that they wouldn't notice." Alice considered this. When she had read the letter her curiosity had awakened with a stretching yawn and flicked its tail. Now she could not deny remembering that only a few moments had passed when she had been underground before—perhaps she wouldn't be missed. Maybe no more than mere seconds would pass now. She shook her head.
"How do you know?"
"Well, I don't know, you're the one doing the speculating." Alice felt a strong urge to punch him, but better manners prevailed.
"So, then. We will go together down." The Hatter donned his hat and began humming again.
"No. No no no no no." Alice flexed her hands out at him, her palms turning white.
He did not respond to this, only stood looking at her. Alice drew herself out of the hammock and thrust the scroll into his hands. "Delving back into the depths of insanity is madness in itself. I am not going with you, Mr. Hatter," she said with finality.
The hat-maker cocked his head to one side, considering her thoughtfully.
"I see." He turned abruptly and began to walk off into the woods. Alice stood there alone in the resulting ambiguousness next to the wilted and rumpled hammock. He wasn't going to stick around and put forth convincing arguments? said something small within her. There was no sign that someone else had been there now, just Alice and her pillows and her books. She waited and started to feel the uncomfortable, pushing irresistibility of the notion to go after him, as if the way he walked off swept something along with him, a motion to vamoose which she had rejected.
"Bloody—" She stumbled as if pulled forward by a string connected to her solar plexus before she stamped her foot and crossed her arms in petulance. Listening carefully, she could detect no crashing in the trees beyond, nor could she see any large green pieces of felt poking out to reveal an idiotically superior smirk.
Alice gave an impatient sigh and grabbed her skirts before following.