A mist settled on the cobble stone of the drive to a large foreboding mansion. Suddenly the clip of horse hooves and the creaking slap of wagon wheels rushed down the cobble stone and up to the huge gothic styled gates. The horses waited impatiently, pawing and sniffing at the ground, as the gates slowly opened on their own, allowing the four wagons in.
A swarm of young children and animated toys suddenly filled the dew laden lawn and welcomed the man in the top hat home. The tall, cold eyed man jumped out of the wagon and rushed up to the immense steps of the mansion, a smile on his thin lips and a gleam of joy in his icy eyes. The children cheered and the small and large animated toys chirped and beeped and wheezed in greeting of the only person who had ever cared for them.
“Toy Keeper! Toy Keeper!” a little girl exclaimed down at the man’s feet, she barely came up to his knees. She had light blond hair pulled back into pigtails, a small round face with bright green eyes, a tiny nose, and pouting lips.
The Toy Keeper bent down and picked up the jumping child, holding her to his chest, her arms wrapped tightly about his neck. Amazingly she wasn’t the least bit afraid of heights; it was obvious as she peered out at all the children, her clubbed foot dangling down, a useless limb.
“All right everyone, let’s unload those wagons!” the Toy Keeper shouted. With a cheer, the children and toys swarmed to the four wagons and began unloading them. Suddenly a strange, shrill, three note whistle was let out by two or three of the older kids in the crowd. The kids stopped their work and made a path for the Toy Keeper to get through to the wagon from which the whistles were let out. In the back of the wagon, staring out from under the blankets and clothing were three sets of eyes. Gently he prodded the three startled children out from under the blankets. Two girls and a boy sat huddled together on the backboard of the wagon. One of the girls had a mangled hand and the other girl had cataracts growing in her eyes. The boy who sat between the two girls looked normal enough.
Whenever a child looked normal, they normally were either very sick, cursed in someway by a roaming gypsy, or else had mental disabilities of some sort. With help, the Toy Keeper got the three children out of the wagon and to walk up the path, up the steps of the mansion, and onto the massive porch.
He knelt down in front of the children and asked in a baritone voice, “What are your names, little ones?”
The girl with the cataracts in her eyes stumbled forward, stretched out her hands, and felt the man’s face. She found his glasses, only lingered on them for a moment, then continued to his top hat. “My name’s Alice,” she said as she stepped back from the man.
“Hello Alice,” he replied as he placed the yellow tinted glasses on her nose, covering her eyes. A smile spread across her face as she felt the wire rims that set behind her ears. “Thank you,” she whispered with a giggle.
She had dark chestnut brown hair and an oval face. Green specks rimmed around the cataracts in her eyes. Beautiful small lips stuck out from under a long slender nose. In estimate, she was about twelve or thirteen, if the cataracts hadn’t taken over, she would have been the town beauty. She was slight, her clothes hung from her body, too big for her.
The Toy Keeper then came to the older girl with the fiery red hair. She looked shy, and held her mangled hand behind her back in shame. “What is your name?” the man in the top hat whispered kindly.
He nodded his head with a gentle smile to eye the young man. It was rare to see someone his age come into the mansion. He didn’t quite meet the Toy Keeper’s height, but one more growth spurt would surpass him. “And your name, son?”
“Timothy sir,” the boy answered meekly.
“My wife has dinner cooking. If you would like, I can have some of the children take you in and introduce you to her. She’s very kind and she’ll make sure that you have plenty to eat and clothing to wear,” The Toy Keeper said as he signaled for a few of the older kids to escort the three new ones to the wash rooms, clothing store, and the mess hall.
In his private study, The Toy Keeper and Timothy met once again. The room was maple wood paneled and looked to be rather small, and a little cramped but it worked fine for one on one interviews. The Toy Keeper sat back leisurely in his leather chair and watched the boy sitting across from him.
“Why are you here? You look to be in peak physical condition, you are very intelligent, I heard you conversing with a few of the kids in the mess hall.” The Toy Keeper accused in a beguiling voice. The boy made him curious. He just didn’t fit right in the mansion. They didn’t often get older teenagers, on the verge of adulthood. Something just was different and the Toy Keeper couldn’t put his finger on it.
Whenever he had brought children back to the mansion they were always welcomed into the house. The house itself seemed to welcome the children and wrap them in its embrace. This boy seemed to be able to stand in the midst of the enormous mansion and see it as space, and the house looked back at him in the same way. He just wasn’t accepted by it. The Toy Keeper grunted in this realization as he stroked the bridge of his nose in thought.
“I… I don’t have anything wrong with me mentally or physically. I… I’ve been cursed though. My grandfather killed a gypsy chief while drunk and the chief’s wife cursed my grandfather. She said, ‘You and your son, and your son’s son shall never know of love, they shall carry on in the way of populating the earth but they will never know acceptance by anyone or anything. As you have taken my love from me so shall I take love from you.’ My grandfather soon after was driven mad by inner convictions and left my grandmother. My father never married my mother, it was only by chance that I was returned to him when I was born. I lived with my father for a long time, I’ll be turning eighteen by the New Year. My father, unable to tolerate his solitude, became dependent on apothecary spells to allow him to escape his reality. He got caught in the middle of a horse and buggy accident during one of his incidents. I couldn’t do much else for myself. The villages in the surrounding areas had banished my father from town gatherings and barely paid for his services in brush clearning. They told me, when my father died, that I had no business with them and turned me out. Other than logging, clearing, and housework, I had never learned any skills, so I waited for your wagons to come. I had hoped to be able to work here as a servant or something,” he said, looking down at his laced fingers.
The Toy Keeper leaned back in his chair and studied the boy for a while. He was perplexed. He had never had a child, or a teen come to him asking to be employed into his services. He had always had the kids working around the mansion, providing them with basic necessary life skills and job skills. They were able to take lessons from tutors that The Toy Keeper brought in. Most of them were fluent in Latin and English and could write a fair hand. They enjoyed living in the manor, but most of them were looking for a way to get out of Tai Shan Manor and make something of themselves in the real world. As far back as he could remember, The Toy Keeper could not think of one instance in which a child had asked him if he or she could stay on with him at his manor permanently. There were only a few that stayed on with the manor permanently, and they were more frequently cared for by the new intakes and provided only the most minimal help around the building.
Timothy shifted in his chair, all to aware of the long silence that was filling the space of the office with a deadly aura. He knew when he wasn’t needed. “You don’t have to except me into your service. I guess the gypsy was right in cursing me,” Timothy said as he rose from his chair to leave to room. The Toy Keeper gestured for him to take a seat once more.
“No, no, it’s not that, it’s just a startling idea for me. My wife and I have always worked the manor with help from the kids, but we’ve never hired on servants. True, we do pay the tutors to work up here, but still they are not servants or anything like that,” The Toy Keeper eyed the boy. The boy waited quietly. He had learned over time that to keep quiet in times of uncertainty usually produced more answers when needed. The Toy Keeper glanced around the room, noting that there was a lack of decoration. He sighed heavily, realizing that he had stayed away from home too long once again. “I guess I could use the help. I’m getting old, son, and I don’t think that I will be able to make the drives much more,” he confided in the lad.