The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Wayward Sons and Windblown Daughters

 

Mr. Farringdale and Mr. Blake stood in Pemberton Street, hunched against the coal smoke and a driving green rain, peering at each other gravely.

“It was found with the gentleman?” Mr. Farringdale inquired. He was holding a small bundle of envelopestied with a red ribbonand he was holding it very delicately, as if it were valuable, or a severed hand.

“It was,” said Mr. Blake. “And it is very odd. The writings, I mean. Fanciful and not particularly helpful. But perhaps they will shed some light on the matter for you. I thought you might read them and give me your opinion by tomorrow.”

Mr. Farringdale nodded and tucked the letters into his coat. Pemberton Street traffic drifted around the two men, strangely silent in the rain. Shadow-clouds rolled overhead. Behind Mr. Blake, in the police station, a grate clanged, echoing.

“I shall read them this evening,” said Mr Farringdale. “Though if they shed no light on the matter for you, I fear they will do very little for me. Good day.”

Mr. Farringdale touched his hat and hurried away up the street. The rain flew at his face, and it smelled of rust and chemicals.

* * *

Mr. Farringdale went to his lodgings in Aberlyne. His rooms were situated at the top of a steep, dim staircase in one of those old, narrow, complicated sorts of city-houses. Mr. Farringdale was only renting.

He lived in London officially, in a scrubbed brick three-story with a wife and two children. He was not there often, however. He was not here often either. He was wherever he had to be, for however long he was needed, and then he was elsewhere. His landlady did not call out to him as he climbed the stairs to his rooms.

He found the stove already lit upon undoing his door. He stamped the rain off. He filled himself a pot of tea and took off his overshoes, then his under-shoes. He hung up his coat.

The bundle of letters sat on a chair, the red ribbon glimmering softly in the stove-light.

Mr. Farringdale took his supper on a wobbly table, watching the rain dribble and worm down the windowpanes. He drank his tea.

Then he settled himself into a large threadbare chair and began to read . . .

* * *

February 15th, 1862

Dear Papa,

We are beginning to suspect we are not real people. I often feel I am made of wind and bits of ash, and that I cannot stand upright or all my bones will snap. Harry thinks he might be made from wax. He told me the other night that when he was standing too close to the candle in Mistress Hannicky’s study he thought his skin was going runny. He thought it all might drip away. Do you think we are not real people? Do you think we are changelings, perhaps?

Please write back.

It is very lonely here, and it is always raining. Harry is the only person I talk to, but he is very quiet. Some days I think Harry is lost. He tells me he is in a deep forest, even when he is directly beside me. I would call him silly, but then some days I feel as though the wind is singing to me and calling me away. What do you think, Papa? Do you ever suppose you do not belong in the place you are? Do you ever think you are not like all the people around you and that perhaps you should be somewhere else?

It is beginning to storm and thunder outside. I feel the rain all day long. Sometimes I feel like I am in the rafters, staring down at myself. I need to go before the others come in.

Do you think I might come home soon?

Your affectionate daughter,

Pellinora Quitts

P.S. Could you send me a stick of peppermint? I told the other girls you owned a factory that made peppermint sticks. They do not believe me, but perhaps if they did we would be friends. (?)

 * * *

Mr. Farringdale frowned and set the letter aside. He picked up the next envelope. A reply. London address. Thick, creamy stock and monogrammed stationary. It was written very differently from the first letter. Where that one was spelled out in the jerking, uneven hand of a child, this one was all sharp points and swift lines, thin bits of ink, controlled.

 * * *

March 6th, 1862

Pellinora,

I was displeased to hear that school is not to your liking. It is, however, one of the finest in the country, and very expensive, and if you are sad I think it may well be because you are not trying to be happy. Have you spoken to the other children? Perhaps if you made an effort to become acquainted with the other little girls there, things would appear brighter.

Furthermore, your gloominess is little wonder when all you do is associate with Harry Snails. He is not a good sort. His own parents say so. He is mean and petty and you will do well to remember the reasons he was sent away. You would do well to choose a better friend.

I must be going now. I have no more to write. We shall see you at Christmas, and you shall have a rocking horse.

Regards,

Your father

 * * *

Mr. Farringdale read the letter again because it didn’t really seem like a reply. He wondered if perhaps the letters were out of order. But no, this was the reply, dated three weeks after the first letter from Pellinora. Mr. Farringdale took a sip of tea. He opened the next envelope and slid out its contents.

 * * *

June 16th, 1862

Dear Papa,

The other children were beastly today, especially to Harry. They were throwing rocks at him. I told them not to. I told them Harry didn’t mean to be horrid. I know he can be. He can be dreadfully mean, but he has had such a hard life, what with going to India and being sick and alone for so long. I understand him, don’t you, Papa? He told the other children he didn’t want to go near the warm food or it would melt him from the inside out, and then when they didn’t believe him he began to call them names. When we were sent outside to take the air, that was when they started throwing the rocks. One cut Harry right over the eye and he bled a lot. They were throwing rocks at me, too, I don’t know why. I pulled Harry away then and we ran out onto the moor. They are very wild, these moors. Mistress Hannicky says we are never to go wandering there, but Papa, I was afraid they would hurt Harry to death! So we ran and ran over the moor. The ground is soft and strange there, Papa, like wet, mossy skin. We ran so long and then we came to the loveliest little pond, just sitting there in the middle of nowhere, lovely as you like. We couldn’t run anymore then. The other children weren’t following us and so Harry and I just sat down and cried.

The wind made me feel better after a while, but Harry is still angry.

I’m back now in school but I wish I didn’t have to be. Will you come and take me away? And Harry, too? It is so cold all the time. It is dreadfully cold, and they never build fires. The headmistress is very cruel. I don’t know why she will not build a fire.

Your affectionate daughter,

Pellinora Quitts

P.S. I think perhaps you forgot to read the post script on my last letter. Could you please send me a stick of peppermint? The other girls don’t believe me that you are rich. They think perhaps you’ve left me here, and that I’ll never leave again, but of course I’m coming home for Christmas. And Harry, too?

 * * *

The next letter was from the father again. It had been sent only three days later.

 * * *

October 15th, 1862

Pellinora,

You will stay at Carrybruck until the term is out. You will attend to yourself, and what happens to Harry Snail is none of your concern. I hope you are not being a trial to the other children. We will discuss your further education in December when you are home.

Regards,

You father

 * * *

Cold, thought Mr. Farringdale. He sipped his tea.

 * * *

October 30th, 1862

Dear Papa,

We have a friend now, Papa! Here at school! He is a bit strange and quiet, but oh! a friend! He walks and talks with us. He says he saw us out on the moor that day, crying by the pond, and he followed us back, do you believe it? I think perhaps he is from one of the farms, but he is very interesting. He knows so much. He asked us what the trouble was, why we had been crying. So nice. We told him. We told him everything and how the other children were dreadful. We told him we thought we were perhaps ashes and wax and ought to be somewhere else. Do you know what he said? He said, it is not the children who are dreadful.

I only wish he would come inside sometimes. He always stays out. Perhaps it’s for the best, but I do feel sorry for him. He is always quite drenched from the rain. He did give us a new game to play, though. Up in the rafters. Harry and I will walk the beams, two at a time, heel-to-toe, one after another and try not to look down. If we look down we’ll fall. Jack (that’s the name of our new friend) watches from the windows.

Your affectionate daughter,

Pellinora Quitts

 * * *

Again there was no reply from the father. Odd. The child wrote and wrote and no one answered. Mr. Farringdale thought of his own two children at home. Tousled heads and starched collars. He peered into the stove.

Then he sat up.

Tea. The next envelope.

 * * *

November 5th, 1862

Dear Papa,

Jack (remember from my last letter? Our new friend?) says the funniest things. Sometimes I think he is a child, but sometimes I think he is someone else, too. Someone old. Just like us, Papa, just like me and Harry!

The other day we were talking with Jack late at night. He was outside and we were inside and we were whispering so as not to wake the other children.

“Aren’t people stupid?” Harry said, and Jack said, “Oh, yes! People are insufferable. When you become acquainted with them one by one they can be tolerated, but taken together one wants to slap them!”

Isn’t that funny? I’m not sure what it means, but I thought it was clever.

Jack sings, too, did I tell you? I don’t think I did. He doesn’t have a nice voice, but we don’t tell him because he can become quite cross and moody. He slaps Harry sometimes. So hard Harry falls. He pushes him. He pushes both of us and the other children, too. But he’s better than no one! He’s a good friend!

We are going to the moors tomorrow again, after the others have gone to sleep. Jack showed us a way out. A lose panel in the scullery girl’s pantry. We will go and dance on the moors, jack says.

Your affectionate daughter,

Pellinora Quitts

* * *

November 12th, 1862

Dear Papa,

I can see right through my hand. I wish you could be here. I’m quite sure I’m a fairy child. When the wind is very strong I feel it right through me, stirring my heart as if it all only little whirling particles. I feel I could fly away!

We don’t eat anymore, Harry and I. Jack says it’s silly to eat, so we don’t, and we’re not hungry anyway. No one notices. I thought we might get in trouble from the headmistress, but she doesn’t know.

Your affectionate daughter,

Pellinora Quitts

 * * *

Papa,

They found the panel in the scullery girl’s pantry. They nailed it closed. We can’t go out that way anymore. They found our soaked clothing, too. They don’t know they’re ours, but they will guess soon, I think. We will be in trouble.

Oh Daddy, take us away before we get in trouble! Please!

Pellinora

 * * *

Mr. Farringdale unfolded the letters faster now, envelope by envelope. He could see Pellinora in his mind’s eye, scribbling away in the blue shadows of a somber country school, the tumbling rain outside and the wind howling over the sharp corners of the house. Mr. Farringdale wondered. He wondered who Harry Snails was, and why the mean and petty boy had been sent to the country. He wondered if this new friend Pellinora spoke of was imaginary or one of the farmhands, and he wondered if it made any difference.

Mr. Farringdale sipped his tea.

He slit open the next envelope.

 * * *

Pellinora,

(Ah, thought Mr. Farringdale. Another one from the father.)

I am most distressed by your letters. I found myself in Yorkshire yesterday on business and spoke to your headmistress. There is no one named Jack at your school. Not even a neighbor boy. And she is most disturbed by your and Harry’s habits,and the negative influence you are exerting on the other school children. She says you are often distant and rude and that you care very little for the cleanliness of your garments and your skin. You often ignore the other children, and she says you and Harry speak to each other as if there were the only souls in the world. Why must you be such a toil, so selfish?

You are leaving Carrybruck at Christmas and will not be going back. What Harry’s family do with him is none of my concern.

Regards,

Your father

 * * *

The next letter was very crumpled. It was blotched, too, great splatters over the ink, rain or perhaps tears. Mr. Farringdale frowned when he saw this and rose to tighten the window against a sudden draft of air from the street.

The dates were approaching the present. The night of the death, six days ago.

 * * *

November 30th, 1862

Dear Papa,

You spoke to the headmistress? Why didn’t you tell me you were here? Did you not wish to speak to me? Are you very cross? We are not wicked children, Papa, I promise!  If you saw, you would understand. I can barely hold this pen, so flimsy have my fingers become. In a day or two they will be little flakes and threads of bone. If you would only come and visit us! We are sorry we caused you distress. Christmas seems very far away. 

Your affectionate daughter,

Pellinora

 * * *

With shaking fingers, Mr. Farringdale undid the final envelope and slid out the paper. It was limp and wrinkled, showing all the signs of having been drenched in water or dropped in a puddle. The ink was faded in places, so much it was difficult to read. There was no address on it. No stamp or postmark.

 * * *

December 24th, 1862

Dear Papa,

We are going to the pond. We are tired of the school and Jack agrees it will be best. You said in your last letter that Mistress Hannicky didn’t know of Jack. She doesn’t of course, and that is because Jack lives on the moors like I told you. He said Mistress Hannicky wouldn’t know him either way. He says he would frighten her. He is very pale, you see, and he has black spots on his cheeks like an old cracked mirror. I think it is perhaps from some terrible country disease that they do not have in the cities. 

I must write quickly now. Jack says he will take care of everything. He will take care of you, too, he said, isn’t that nice? He has told us about it, and all will be well. We’re going out soon, into the night. There’s another way, a loose lock into the herb-garden behind the kitchens that the headmistress doesn’t know about. We’ll go out onto the moors and we’ll take off our shoes and in we’ll go for a little swim, Jack says! It won’t bother me, and Harry is made of wax. Wax is waterproof, isn’t it? Isn’t it what they seal bottles with?

Oh, Jack is calling now. Farewell, Papa! He is tapping at the window. Farewell!

Pellinora

 * * *

Mr. Farringdale dropped the letter. He glanced about.

Then he put all the letters back in a heap and hurried to a cupboard. He rifled through newspapers, records, old correspondence. He came upon a file. He snapped it open briskly and took out a piece of paper.

Mr. Quitts: found dead on the morning of December 25th, 1862 in London.

Pellinora Quitts and Harry Snails: reported missing from communal breakfast table on December 25th, 1862, North Yorkshire.

It was a twelve hour journey by steam-train from Yorkshire to London. Never-mind that it would have been undertaken by two children in freezing December weather. They would never have made it to the station in Leeds let alone to London, to Mr. Quitts’ house, in the wee hours of the morning.

Who delivered that last letter to Mr. Quitts’ bedside, then, was not immediately evident.

* * *

“What do you wish me to say, Mr. Farringdale? That Mr. Quitt was killed by a ghost?”

“No, of course not, but can you explain to me how a man drowns when he is all alone in his house and asleep in bed? How he chokes on four pints of black and brackish water? Can you tell me this? And how the correspondence of both parties from a dozen months come to be lying on his bedside table? No, I think you cannot.”

“It is nonsense. What you tell the commissioner is none of my concern, but ghosts do not kill people.”

“Indeed. Well, it will be ruled suicide. I can tell you that already.”

“Very well, then.”

“. . . And the children? Pellinora and Harry? What became of them?”

“I thought you’d ask.”

“Of course I’d ask! What became of them? Were they found?”

“Found? No. Only their shoes. The school lies on the edge of the moors, Mr. Farringdale. There are many bogs and little holes there, some very deep. What look like silvery little ponds might be wells a hundred feet deep. They went searching for them when the notice came in from the headmistress. They had poles and bloodhounds. They dragged every pond and climbed into every crevice. But there was nothing. No bodies. Not a strand of hair. Only two pairs of shoes rowed up in the moss. Those children went out that night and there’s no telling what became of them. Just the wind out there now, the search-leader told me afterward. Only the wind.”

* * *

Mr. Farringdale caught a train to London the very next day. At the stop-over station in Bristol he bought a large striped box of peppermint sticks.

One Response to “Wayward Sons and Windblown Daughters”

  1. Kelly Allan says:

    Ah, the poor children! All they ever wanted was a little kindness and peppermint sticks! I really loved the dark tone of this story, Stefan.

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