The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Master Bartleby’s Institute of Lateness

I know it is nearly the end. The doctor has been to visit more than before, and it is harder to stay awake while he asks me his questions.

The room is cold, no matter how much wood Papa orders for the hearth. I’m in the parlor now, a bed made up for me. They say it’s so I don’t have to climb the stairs, but it’s been days since I could even stand. It’s so I don’t sicken Beatrice and Theo. They have been lucky so far, but the fever needs to take someone.

Outside, hooves clatter on the cobbles and they are loud, but not loud enough to cover the sound of Mama’s soft cries on the other side of the parlor wall.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” I whisper, though it makes no noise when it leaves my dry, cracked lips.

I fall asleep.

And I wake up again.

~*~

It might, perhaps, seem odd that the first thing I notice is that my clothing is different. Looking back, I should have noticed the darkness first, or the feeling of being somewhere very small. The strange sound coming from above, too. But, regardless, the first thing is the cuffs of my dress. I know it’s my Sunday best, because the cuffs were too tight right from the first moment Mama buttoned me into it, and the collar itched.

I scratch my neck. My skin is cool, cold even, and in the pitch black I smile widely. The fever has broken! Doctor was wrong, and I will be all right again.

“Mama!” I call. My throat is dry, I need some water from the jug in the corner. Mama will bring me some when she hears me. “Mama!” I call again.

Now is when I notice the noise above, because suddenly it comes with muffled voices. “Shhh, listen! She’s awake! Hurry, lads!” The scraping gets louder, closer, stopping with a very loud bang that seems to fill the whole world.

“We’ve hit it, boys. One, two, three.”

I see stars far above, and four faces closer, but I recognize the stars. Papa taught me all about the pictures of light in the sky.

“Hello,” says one of the boys. “You must be Lily.”

“I must be,” I say, because I’m not quite certain anymore. Before the fever delirium took me, I was a clever girl, and pieces are coming together like in the wooden puzzles my governesses used to give me. “Am I dead?”

“Well now.” The boy exchanges looks with the others. “That’s an interesting question. D’you feel dead?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “What does it feel like?”

I’m breathing and talking, those must be against the rules if I am dead.

“I’ll say this,” he answers, “if you are, you have all the time in the world and beyond, so p’raps the details can wait until we get you up and out of there.”

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, all right then.”

“She’s takin’ it well,” says one of the others. “Remember what you were like, Tim? Wailin’ and blubberin’ all over the shop. ‘Ere, Lily, stand up if you can, reach for Gareth’s hands there.”

I do as I’m told, let the boy who first spoke pull me up, my good leather shoes scuffing on the climb up to the grass. Headstones glow all round like teeth, but I don’t have one yet. “How long was I in there?” I ask. I think possibly my fever hasn’t broken after all, any moment I will wake in the parlor, hot and shaken from this horrible dream.

“You was buried just this afternoon,” says Gareth. “Nice sendoff you got, too. Couldn’t move for carriages and plumes. Never seen so much mourning silk in my life or after. Posh family, you had, eh?”

“I…I suppose.” I would very much like to wake up now.

“Fill ‘er in, chaps,” says Gareth, and the sound of the shovels starts up again, pouring earth back into the hole. “Can’t leave a mess,” he explains, “or someone’ll know we’ve been ‘ere. That wouldn’t do, would it?”

“It’s good to be tidy,” I say, though what I wish to say is, “what is happening? Where am I?” For certain this is a dream, then, that happens all the time in dreams, that you don’t say what you mean to. Gareth puts his hand on my shoulder, next to the scratchy collar of my Sunday best dress. He looks a friendly sort of boy, a bit like Theo, really, though older than both of us by a good year or two.

“You’ll understand soon, Lily. We’ll take you somewhere safe.”

“I want to go home.” I want to wake up.

“I know.” It might just be the odd moonlight, but for an instant his brown eyes are sad before he brightens again and turns back to the grave.. “Nearly done?”

“Be quicker if you helped, lazy bones.”

“Respect your elders, Timothy.” But Gareth picks up his shovel and scoops in bigger clods of earth than the rest. Run, I tell myself, but my legs are dream-heavy, filled with saltwater and sand. I watch them pat the last crumbs in place, faces reddened, streaked with sweat at their brows. “Right, that’s good enough. Rains’ll come in an hour or two, anyways. Ready to go, Lily?”

“Where?” I want to ask, but what comes out is, “Who are you?”

“Ah, yes. I’ve been terrible rude, haven’t I? I’m Gareth. That one there is Timothy, and the one next to him looks like butter wouldn’t melt is Sam.” The one named Sam doffs his cap to me. “And the last is Legs. Not ‘is real name, course. Never says a word, but you won’t beat him in a foot race.”

They’re all as clean as it’s possible to be after digging a hole and filling it again, their cheeks are plump and pink, clothes worn but mended. I see all these things as I follow them to the graveyard gates, watch mutely as Sam neatly picks the lock to let us out. It’s easier to walk than I thought it might be, but I’m worried by Legs if I try to get away.

Besides, they seem friendly enough, for now, and if I run, I am alone. I don’t know this part of London, and the night-chill is soaking through my Sunday best dress. That, and this is a dream so it doesn’t matter. I will wake soon enough.

The city is never silent; everything in it is a creature with a voice, from the shouting people to the creaking buildings, the rustling trees and twittering birds and thundering carts. I can’t say as I’d ever noticed it quite so much before, but dreams are funny things.

The boys lead me through the darkened streets, ducking away from the glow of gas lamps and twisty-turning around so many corners I’m nearly certain we end up back where we began at least once.

“Where are we going?” I ask, and this time the words come exactly as I intend. I still want some cold water from the jug in the corner of the parlor.

“There,” says Gareth, pointing to the face of a bone white building with blood red shutters at the windows. His eyes flick to one of them. “Lovely, Master’s asleep. You’ll meet ‘im proper in the morning, young Lily. We’ll show you the ropes ‘til then.”

“What is this place?”

Hinges creak beneath the weight of the heavy door, its knocker grinning like a fiend. “Welcome,” says Timothy, “To the Institute of Lateness.”

“Are we late?”

Gareth laughs, a dry, hollow laugh. “In a manner of speaking. In another, we are right on time. Come in. Wipe your feet just there, Master does not like mud, though the device takes care of it quick enough.”

As if it was summoned, the most bizarre thing I have ever laid eyes upon shudders and roars at the far end of the corridor and begins to move toward us. I hear a ticking, like clockwork, and steam whistles from pipes atop it, the big copper beast. I back up against the door, pushing Timothy and Legs out of my way, but the thing comes closer, and closer still.

I open my mouth to scream, but Legs clamps his hand over it. “Shhh!” says Sam. “We mustn’t wake the others, they need their sleep. It won’t ‘urt you, promise.”

I do not believe that. I feel it could suck me into its tangle of pipes easy as the mud it clears from the floor. Frozen, I don’t so much as blink until it starts to retreat the way it came.

“W-What is that?”

“One of Master’s inventions. There’s others, plenty of ‘em,” says Gareth. “Come to the kitchens, I’ll bet you wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea.”

I am still very thirsty. I very much want to wake up. Does dream-tea satisfy real thirst? I do not know. I’m taken to the kitchens to find out, but stop in the doorway. The cleaning device seems suddenly far less frightening than what I see in front of me.

I don’t spend much time in the kitchens at home; Cook always chases me out, tells me little hands are nothing but bother. I’m certain, however, that we don’t have a great many of these things. Everything is whirring and bubbling and steaming, with no one to watch over any of it. A pot stirs itself by means of a spoon on a long metal arm, a strange machine atop a long, scrubbed wooden table slowly peels a pile of apples.

The thing Gareth lifts is not any sort of kettle I’ve ever known. I don’t think I wish to drink tea made with it.

“Is it safe to eat and drink in dreams?” I ask. I don’t mean to say it aloud.

“We should tell her,” Timothy whispers to Gareth. “She ‘asn’t–”

“Right, right, but let her warm up first.”

“Tell me what?”

“Drink your cuppa,” says Gareth, giving me a tin mug. It looks like tea. It smells like tea. It’s warm, and I’m chilled and thirsty.

It tastes like tea. I narrow my eyes at the curious machine that made it.

And, all at once, I’ve had more than quite enough, thank you. I want to wake up, which means getting to the very middle of the dream. I slam the cup down on the table. It sloshes over the cuffs of my Sunday best dress in a very real fashion. “Where am I?”

“What first, Legs? Dormitories or gallery?”

Legs holds up one finger; Gareth nods. “Sam, get a lantern. Don’t be frightened,” he tells me, taking my hand.  “It’s really all right.”

On the first floor of the bone white manor with its blood red shutters, I’m shown through a door, Legs holding a finger to his lips. I should be quiet as he is.

But when I see the rows of beds, filled each by sleeping children, I wish to scream. “Look at their faces,” Gareth whispers, and I do. One close by shifts, disturbed by the lamplight. His gold curls shimmer, plump lips purse.

“Now, the gallery.” I’m pulled from the room, taken down a corridor to another. In this one, Sam dispenses with the lantern in his hand, pulls a cord hanging from the ceiling and the brightest lights ever to blind me flicker into near daylight. “Oy, watch it, you twit! She won’t be able to see anything.”

But I blink, and I can. The room is close to empty, just a few chairs scattered over the enormous floor. The walls are lined with rows and rows of pictures. A box sits on a three-legged stand, a big glass eye on the front of it watching me, following me as I step forward.

I know what that is.

But I do not understand.

Gareth tugs on my hand. “‘Ere I am.” He points to one of the photographs. He’s not alone, a family surrounds him. “And there’s Sam, and Timothy.” Legs slips past us to gaze at another one. I move to look, beside his is a picture of the sleeping boy with the gold curls. He is in a chair, eyes wide and blank, staring straight ahead.

Tim carefully unhooks one from its nail. “Taken just this morning,” he says, placing it into my hands.

Mama is there, and Papa. Theo and Bea.

I am wearing my Sunday best dress.

The picture tumbles from my grasp, glass shattering into a thousand sharp tears on the floor. I knew Mama and Papa would do this, I had heard them talking when they thought I was too fevered to listen. It was not an uncommon thing to do, one final photograph by which to remember me, and in which I would not appear sick because it was far, far too late for that.

Too late. And I stand now in the Institute of Lateness.

“This is not possible.”

“Master Bartleby is a very skilled inventor,” says Gareth. “Across many oceans, there’s an idea that a photograph removes the soul, just as death do. Master’s special camera gives it back. ‘E pricks you with a needle during the sitting, so’s you don’t wake up again too soon. Best to wait until you’re buried and fetch you again.”

I pinch myself, hard enough to bruise. Not a thing happens. I do not bruise.

My bubbling scream finally fights its way free of my throat. Legs clamps his hand over my mouth once more, though just an instant ago he was half across the room. He lifts me as if I were a feather from one of the birds I watched through the window beside my sickbed and carries me to a chair. My eyes flood, breath comes in desperate gasps. I am still breathing, crying. That must be against the rules!

“Shhh,” says Sam, patting my head. “We’ve all been ‘ere. Sleep, Lily. You will still sleep, and eat, and run about. It’ll look brighter after a rest.”

I fall asleep.

And I wake again.

~*~

I’m still in the chair, curled and cramped. Through swollen, bleary eyes, I gaze round and startle to wakefulness.

“Welcome, Miss Lily,” says a man sitting in another chair. His waistcoat is very fine, pocketwatch gleaming. He has a wide moustache, wider even than Papa’s, and bushy eyebrows, but his head shines like a marble in the sunlight. “I do apologize for not being about to greet you when you arrived in the night, but we may acquaint ourselves now that we are fresh. Would you care for breakfast?”

I shake my head. “I would like to go home.”

“This is your home now,” he says, and a knife’s-edge of chilliness slices through his words. “You, see, Miss Lily, were you to return to your fine home in Mayfair, you would not even frighten your parents with your return from the deceased. They would simply not see you.”

No. I am real, and solid, and breathing. They would see me.

“I know you may not believe me, but you will. Your very special qualities as a…formerly alive…child are precisely what make you of such use to me. My inventions cost money to create, and I must create! I will change the world, show them the power of clockwork and steam in ways they have never dreamed. It is now your job to assist me in this.”

“I won’t work for you!” I cry. “I won’t!” I do not even know what it is he means for me to do, but I know I will do none of it.

“You will. Gareth!”

Gareth appears, and now I know the truth, if indeed I am not still dreaming, he looks far less friendly than he did in the night.

“Take her with you today. Legs, too, just in case she gets any funny ideas.”

“Yes, Master Bartleby.”

I do not let Gareth take my hand this time, but I follow, if only to get away from the horrid man. “Are you ‘ungry? Would you like clean clothing?”

“No.”

“Suit yourself.”

The others are waiting, but there are more of them now. All the sleeping children from the dormitory, gathering shoes and coats and forming small groups. “Get a good ‘aul today, chickens,” says Timothy. “This is Lily, you may meet ‘er proper later.”

One of them opens the door and they all rush out, the groups scampering in different directions. “Reckon Knightsbridge is a good place to ‘it today,” says Gareth. “Off we go.”

Legs stays very close to me, close enough I feel I cannot breathe. I try not breathing at all, last a minute before I gasp. He doesn’t say a word, but smiles as if he knows what I have just done, and why.

It isn’t a long walk to Knightsbridge, soon we are enveloped in a crush of finery and leisure. Ladies out for a stroll, gents tapping their walking sticks on the ground. From the corner of my eye, I see Gareth neatly, swiftly unclasp a diamond bracelet and drop it into his pocket.

“Thief!” I cry, but the lady doesn’t turn. Gareth grins widely, Sam holds up a fat purse.

I poke a passing man in the ribs, shocked at myself. His stick taps and he continues on.

“They cannot see us,” I whisper.

“Or ‘ear us, or feel us,” agrees Gareth. “Master Bartleby can, but he refuses to say how. We’ve all tried to trick him into saying, but no dice yet. One day. We’re not short on time to figure it out.”

“How long…?”

“Ten years,” he says. “‘Aven’t aged a day. I should be four and twenty by now.”

I take a single step. Legs’s hand curls round my arm, he shakes his head.

I cannot run.

~*~

Every day, I watch for a chance never given to me. Someone is always watching, waiting for me to try to escape. I meet the others, take my own bed in the dormitory. I speak very little, but I start to eat. The hunger overwhelmed me. Every day, I am taken out with Gareth, Sam, Timothy and Legs, watch as they gather riches with which Master Bartleby can pay for his many inventions.

I will not go near them. I make tea by boiling water in a pot on the stove, glaring at the machine.

Soon, I have been there a week, then two.

“Today,” Sam says to Gareth. Gareth nods in agreement at whatever they’re talking about. I put on my shoes by the door and go with them. The buildings surrounding the Institute are familiar now. We leave them behind, walk through a strange part of London, and then I know where I am again.

My home is just over there. Mama is on the doorstep with Theo and Bea.

“Mama!” I scream, breaking free of Legs and running, running, running. All the way up to her, Legs an inch too late, Gareth a few feet.

“Come now, children, it’s time for us to take the air again. I know we are very sad, but Lily would not want us to stay shut up inside forever.”

“Yes, I would!” I say.

“We shall go to the shops, and then the park. Does that sound all right?”

“Yes, Mama,” says Theo.

“Take her necklace,” says Gareth. “If she feels you, if you can make her see you, ‘ear you, we will let you go with her.”

With trembling fingers, I reach up. The clasp is fiddly and I can’t get it open at first, but Mama is busy searching for something in her pockets. The chain comes free and falls into my palm. “Mama!” I say again.

“Oh, good, I have it. Time to go, my dears.”

I stare at the twist of gold and diamond as Mama, Theo, and Bea descend the stairs without me. I crumple to the top step, tears streaming.

“Put it on, you can remember her by it,” says Sam. “We all ‘ave something.” He holds up a hand, a shiny ring glints.

“She will never see me.”

“No.”
Gently, Gareth takes the bauble from me and affixes it round my neck. “I want to go home,” I cry. I stand, and follow the others back to the Institute of Lateness.

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