My Dear Lady Misericordia,
I hope this letter finds you well. I do hope that you have recovered from your exertions at the Christmas Ball in the no doubt entertaining company of Viscount Fox.
I am, of course, delighted that you were able to put aside your worries and concerns about your father and his friends, the dangers they were facing, the unexpected peril that could destroy them at any moment, and, for just one night, enjoy yourself in a lovely, heated ballroom, with plenty of fruit punch and inconsequential gossip.
You will have guessed by now, my Lady, that I am being sarcastic. I really do think it is terribly heartless of you, at the very moment that the Baronet Oxshott was throwing himself to his doom on the top of the world, as your father and I were plummeting from the sky towards an icy fate, that you were busy worrying about what Sir Charles said to Captain Wentworth and who was marked down for your next waltz.
I am afraid, my Lady, that I am suddenly not all that sorry that I included your father’s less than charitable remarks in my last letter.
But, ah! My last letter. Surely this mystery at least will have gathered your attention. You must have had that letter by now, but how? And how is it that I, lost in a remote valley high up amidst the Arctic mountains, can have had your letter about the Christmas Ball? Surely the penny post does not extend that far?
Well, my Lady, I must confess that the answers to some of these questions are still a mystery to me, but thereby hangs a tale.
If you have had my last letter by now, then you will know that we had found ourselves marooned on a snowy plateau in the mountains, as far beyond human civilisation as the most deserted island on the ocean. Or was it? For, in the distance, were the lights and chimney smoke that could only mean human habitation, and while the Professor and Lord Daunt, you father, might know what those signs meant, I and the Professor’s assistant Harry were only left with another puzzle: who, or what, could live in such a desolate place?
We camped for the night and set out next morning for this mysterious house. Fortunately the skis had been one of the items we had brought with us in our balloon journey through the mountains, although they are not easy things to master, at all. Well, not easy for me. Harry picked the whole thing up very quickly, though, and was able to help when I struggled. Which was often, I’m afraid to say.
How odd it is that, while I knew nothing of our goal or the reasons behind our adventure, I could simply enjoy the travelling – the wonder of the sleigh ride or the strangeness of the balloon borne boat, but the moment we had a purpose in sight – the house, growing ever so slowly closer ahead – the journey immediately became exhausting and interminable.
We struggled on, that is, the others skied and I struggled, across the featureless white plain, our destination under the distant mountains never seeming to grow any closer, above us the bare, cloudless sky, below us the bare, endless snow.
Here ought to have been adventure – at the top of the world, on the verge of some great mystery – but here was only incredible boredom and nuisance.
Slowly, however, our goal began to make itself clear before us. Not a single house, it turned out, but a homestead, a collection of buildings: houses, barns, stables, all with lights burning merrily in the windows and fires lit within.
There was something immediately cheerful about the place, more than just the delight of finding civilisation again, out here in the wilderness. There was something immediately human about the buildings, something welcoming and warm and any worries I might have had about what we were about to discover there disappeared entirely, although I could not and still cannot quite put my finger on why.
As we finally approached the main gate, extravagantly decorated with carved reindeer heads, a small figure came bustling out of a nearby building, running up towards us through the snow. At first I thought it must be a child, from the size of it, but when I saw the face under the red, fur-lined hood, I realised that it was, in fact, a full grown but very small man.
His features were something like the Sami, but with a twist something else that I couldn’t put a finger on and a look in his eye as if he were laughing at something that we would never understand.
He drew himself up under the gate and bowed to us. The Professor stepped forward and tried a greeting in Sami that he had learned from the reindeer herders. To our great astonishment the little man replied in broken English, his voice clear in the still air.
“Well coming to the Youlutonty, hearty journey-makers! I am Tom, you may come well in and take hearth.”
We followed him through the gates and into a small square, ringed about with many buildings and dwellings, many of them bearing signs above the door that suggested that they might be shops or businesses of some kind.
Lights burned in all the houses and at every window faces peered out at us, fascinated by the strange new-comers.
Tom led us to a large building on the far side of the square, almost immediately evident as an inn or hostel, where we were ushered into low-ceilinged room where a huge table groaned under a great feast laid out, apparently, for us.
“They must have seen us arrive, yesterday,” whispered Harry, “To be so prepared.”
Tom motioned for us to make ourselves at home, but the Professor and Lord Daunt would hear none of it. They immediately started bombarding Tom with questions:
“What is this place? How do you live here? Where did all this food come from? Who is in charge here? When can we meet him?”
Questions poor Tom’s English was not quite up to answering. And not just his English, either, I suspected. There was something in his careful confusion that made me think he was deliberately not telling them something, was keeping something back. They were willing to feed us and give us shelter, it seemed, but not to offer us anything beyond that.
Too distracted by our wonder at the place, neither Harry nor I had any appetite for the sumptuous meal that had been prepared for us. I picked at a mincemeat pie, while wandering around the room, examining it distractedly – every wooden surface in the room had been decorated with carvings and, in the flickering firelight, the carvings seemed to move and dance: reindeer cantered, faces winked and grinned, forests waved in the wind and the clouds flew.
And Harry coughed. He was standing by a door in the corner of the room that had been left ajar. Tom was occupied with the persistent questioning. Curiosity, I’m afraid, got the better of us.
The door led through to a bare, warm passageway and into a long, low room, almost entirely taken up with a long, low table at which were set twenty or thirty bowls of steaming broth. Welcoming though the room was, it was empty.
Beyond that was a cavernous kitchen, where ovens roared and pans bubbled, where a cloud of flour still hung on the air and ladle steamed gently on a bench, but no one stirred, because the kitchen, too, was deserted.
So, too, was the bake house beyond, pungent with the smell of gingerbread, and the small square beyond that, where the snow was churned up with footprints, but no feet stood now.
Empty though all these places were, there was a sense that the moment before we had turned the corner and opened the door, they had been bustling, hectic with life. Whoever had been there had fled moments before us, and now hid somewhere just out of sight, watching us pass.
Eventually we came to a wide set of double doors that led through into a vast, brightly lit hall, filled with long lines of tables and benches. And on each table: machinery. Lathes, saws, screws, wood carving and metal working, every kind of tool and device was laid out here. And at every place was a piece of work, something half made, or almost assembled, and all of them toys.
Here a nutcracker soldier, his stiff jaw not yet hinged on, there a spring wound ballerina, beneath her tutu still only bare metal where her mechanism showed. Here a solid little wooden reindeer on wheels, there the delicate cut-out of a paper doll, surrounded by the patterns of her costumes.
And here a clockwork train and there a little, tin putt-putt boat. Do you know them? I had one as a child and delighted in it – you place a candle in a small metal boat and it heats up a tiny boiler to make steam, driving the boat forward. Seeing one again brought me up short and I stared at it, and the train at the work bench next to it.
“Harry,” I said, “I think I’ve just had an idea.”
It probably seems like a silly thing, but it’s easy to get carried away even with silly things and Harry and I soon lost all sense of what we were about and the whole mystery that surrounded us so excited were we in our little project to make the clockwork train steam driven instead.
It was relatively easy to remove all the clockwork and put in a watertight boiler and transfer the candle heating mechanism from the boat, but we had a tricky time with the pistons, a problem Harry solved with the innards of a brass fountain pen that he found on a nearby table.
We were so absorbed that it wasn’t until we had filled the boiler and prepared the candle that we realised that all the workers who must have fled this workshop at our approach had stealthily reappeared, creeping out of the shadows to surround us, watching our every move with eager attention.
Slightly unnerved by their watchful silence, we set the train on the ground and waited, with bated breath, for the candle to heat the water. And slowly, with a clear ‘putt-putt-putt’ in the stillness of the hall, the wheels began to turn and the little engine began to steam across the floor.
Although no one made a single noise, the wave of delight that spread through the crowd around us was as evident as if they had all started applauding. Like Tom, they were all much smaller than us, making me wonder whether we had stumbled upon some tribe of Arctic pygmies, but as the train trundled across the stone flags, I felt a heavy hand descend upon my shoulder and turned to find myself looking up at the largest man I had ever seen.
And I mean, in all senses, large. He seemed almost a foot taller than me and was considerably wider, although, perhaps because of his height, he appeared more exaggerated than actually fat. His head was surrounded by a great cloud of white hair and a vast white beard tumbled down over his massive expanse of green Sami-style coat.
But even in that first glance, his character seemed as large as his frame. Of a man that size I might have easily been afraid, but his face was so wide and so open, his eyes sparkled so with some suppressed laugh, his smile beamed out such a large happiness and welcome that I could never be afraid of this man, not in my whole life.
He seized me by both shoulders and shook me up and down, joyously.
“Marvellous work, young man, marvellous! And you, young…” and he paused for a moment and smiled to himself, “My boy!” and he shook Harry vigorously by the hand.
“Steam trains! A capital idea! Of course, it’ll need tidying up before we can let the children at it, but its marvellous, a veritable marvel. Nilka.”
He said the last word and stuck out his hand again. I took it automatically, without knowing what he meant, so caught up was I by the force of his personality.
“No! Silly old man. In English. What would it be? Klaus? Nick? Nicholas! That’s it! Nicholas.” Ah! It was his name. He pumped at my hand, happily, “And your are Timothy and, I think, Harry – is that right?”
“Harry, yes,” stammered Harry, apparently just as confused as I was.
“Capital, marvellous. Wonderful! Just what we need here, this time of year: brains! Craft! You all will, of course, stay for supper. Talk the fellows through the steam train, will you – he needs topping up, I think. Wonderful to meet you, Timothy and you… Harry. See you at supper!”
And he swept from the room in a great cloud of the little people, who all scurried in his train, suddenly chattering in a language I did not recognise. This could only be the man in charge, I realised, our host, who must hold in his keeping the secret for which the Professor had led us here, to this extraordinary factory hidden out in the endless wild.
I had no time to speculate further, for we were quickly surrounded by more of the tiny workers, and in particular and cunning looking old man who introduced himself as Alf, or something that sounded like Alf, and who began to turn over our little engine in his clever little hands, asking us questions in his broken English.
For the next hour or two Harry and I huddled over a bench in the workroom, with Alf and an ever-changing crowd of willing observers and helpers, refining the steam-driven engine and making it safe for children’s play.
But even as we worked, I could not keep my thoughts from this mystery that surrounded us, now that we were so very close to its heart.
For here was a workshop for crafting toys – not things necessary for survival in this wilderness, but things for entertainment, for children’s play. And many of them, for this was not the only workshop, apparently. And yet how could they possibly get these things to the outside world from here? Consider the trouble we had had getting here. Now imagine taking that journey again and again, bearing cargo and supplies.
And here we come to the problem of the letters, for, soon after out meeting with Nicholas, they were brought to us by one of his many helpers and we were given to understand that we could, easily, send and receive mail from anywhere to anywhere, if we had anything we wished to send.
At first I thought that perhaps our host had some kind of wireless telegraph, allowing him communication instantaneously around the world, but no, here in my hand was your letter, on your paper in your very own handwriting, even down to the three whole pages detailing the dress that you wore to the ball (which, as Harry pointed out, could have been summarised in just three words: ‘Pink, with ribbons’).
So he must be bringing the letters in and sending them out. But how? I had seen only the customary reindeer and sleigh outside, and that would not get him very far in this remote valley. He must have some extraordinary means of transport or communication hidden away somewhere that would allow such miracles. I began to see why the Professor was so interested.
And I was right in my guesses, too, it seemed, for as Harry and I were eventually led through into supper, we came in at the tail end of something the Professor was saying to Nicholas.
“…but imagine the possibilities… A world where people can travel to distant lands in only hours – imagine what we might learn about other people and their cultures, how that will destroy all the barriers that distance and ignorance put up between men and put an end to hate and suspicion between nations! Imagine a world where men can talk to each other across the globe, have the knowledge of the world at their fingertips, know all the news and all the secrets, imagine what a race of scientists we will be then, what will we not be able to do!”
“Perhaps,” said our host genially, “Or perhaps all that knowledge will drive men mad, have you thought of that? Have you thought that perhaps people will be people, whatever toys they have?”
“Just think of what it will mean for trade,” persisted Lord Daunt, “Goods from every country under the sun, available whenever you want them.”
“And when you have everything you want,” countered Nicholas, “What will you do then? Could it be that what you really want is precisely what you can’t have?”
“But…” said the Professor.
“Now, a moment,” said Lord Daunt.
“Besides,” continued Nicholas, “It isn’t mine to give and would be useless to anyone else, anyway. So, enough of that: time for supper!” And he said it with such gentle finality and heartiness that the Professor and his Lordship stopped pestering him and followed him meekly to the table. But I could see that they weren’t going to give up on their dreams so easily.
This time we were eating in a large room, set off, by an arch, from a vast dining hall with high, painted ceiling, ringed about with a gallery, the whole place filled to the rafters with the workers from Nicholas’ homestead, all eating and drinking happily. We were evidently seated at the top table, along with Tom and Alf and three other workers who, it was evident, hung on every word Nicholas uttered.
We had eaten our soup and were just setting into a fish that I think must have been carp (and hoping, in my case, that we might have some meat soon), when a whisper began to travel the length of the dining hall, up the tables and through the arch to Nicholas’ chair.
He listened to the waiter, who had to stand on tiptoes to reach his master’s ear, even with Nicholas sitting down, and then turned to us.
“Gentlemen a… gentlemen, I’m afraid we have a difficulty. Someone has entered the house where you left your belongings and has been rifling through them. My friends are rightly appalled, as they know nothing of crime here. They believe the person responsible is still somewhere in Joulutontti,” I knew by now that that was his name for his home here, “Could it be someone of your party? Did you have another with you?”
“Oxshott,” muttered Lord Daunt, “It must be.” And he stood up from the table, “Come on, if we’re quick…”
And we followed him out of the door, Nicholas and his friends coming in our wake.
We came out into the central square of the homestead, the air clear and cold and the stars bright above us. Just across the square was the main gate we had entered by and, even as we watched, a shadow detached itself from under the eaves of a nearby house and ran across the open space towards the gate.
“Oxshott!” bellowed Lord Daunt.
The figure stopped in gate and turned.
“Oxshott, stop there!”
At the sound of the shout a light came on and caught Oxshott in its glare, frozen there on the edge of the night. With a gasp the crowd of workers around us drew back. And he was a fearsome sight.
His clothes were ragged and torn, standing out in great bunches of fur and cloth. His dark hair and beard were matted and and flecked about with ice. Standing there, shaggy and wreathed in mist from his own breath he looked like the exact opposite of our host, dark and angry and wild.
“Shells,” he said, “For the gun,” and he shook a box of ammunition and waved the shotgun, which he still carried, at us.
“Bear’s here, you know,” he said, “Polar Bear. I’ve seen it, at night. It’s here again. Going to get it this time…” and then he stopped and gasped as he caught sight of Nicholas. “You!”
“Me?” said Nicholas.
“You! Where is it? The train, where is it? Why did it never come? Why did you not bring it?”
“I think you know, don’t you, Roderick?” said Nicholas, and there was a tone in his voice that I had not heard before, some thing hard and stern.
“It wasn’t my fault!” shouted Oxshott, “I didn’t mean to push her so hard! I didn’t know she’d fall off!”
“It was very bad, all the same,” said Nicholas, and at the word ‘bad’ the crowd around us shuddered.
“How dare you! How dare you!” roared Oxshott, “You, you…” he stopped and a terrible, twisted smile spread over his lips, “You: what a trophy that would be, eh? Your head, just above the fireplace: that would be something, wouldn’t it? That would be quite something!”
Oxshott confronts Nicholas
“Oxshott, what are you saying?” I couldn’t stop myself, “What do you mean?”
“I mean his head,” he snapped back, “It’s mine. I’ll be back for it. Tomorrow. I’ll be back and I’ll have his head for my wall!”
And with that he turned and bounded out of the light and off into the darkness.
I need hardly tell you that our meal was not quite as cheerful as it might have been after that.
The Professor and Lord Daunt are convinced that Oxshott is quite mad and will simply disappear into the wilds never to be heard of again and Nicholas seems curiously undisturbed by his threat, and also about the bear, which he did admit often comes sniffing round the homestead, attracted by the smell of food.
Harry and I, on the other hand, are sure that Oxshott meant every word he said. And we are equally sure that even if no one else is going to do anything about it, we must, at least, try to protect our host. We spent the rest of the meal putting our heads together with Alf and Tom and I think tomorrow is going to be a very busy day.
In worry and anxiousness
PS Your dress really did sound rather nice. There is a doll here that has one remarkably similar. In fact the expression is similar, too. Exactly the same blank stare as you used to adopt during Latin lessons.