By Carter Pierce
It was on a foggy morning in early May that I was first introduced to the plight of Winston Edelbrock Marchbury.
The city was quiet. I could see the dim figures of other people on the street as I hurried along, but the fog muffled any noise they made. They were but silent wraiths in my imagination, not touching this world, but somehow a part of it. And I must have been one of the same to any of them: just another dark outline moving past, unknown, unrelated to any happenings in their lives.
I was hunched over, one hand clenching the collar of my long coat together against the chill, the other gripping the handle of my violin case. A shapeless, short-brimmed hat was pulled down low over my brows, and I was wearing a long red scarf wound about my neck a few times.
I strode quickly, splashing now and again through the shallow puddles on the street in my hurry. Being late was bad news when one had an appointment with the Marchbury family. They were unfailingly punctual and had the same expectation of everyone they dealt with.
But today something was out of place. I knew it the instant I came close enough to the house to make out details through the fog: the forbidding front door, with its mahogany panels and cast-iron bolts and grill, stood unusually silent and still. There was only one lit window. The rest were dark.
I ran up the short flight of stone stairs and pounded on the door, checking my pocket watch while I waited for a response. Hopefully a few minutes wouldn’t cause an uproar.
A child’s voice answered me. “Come in!” The intonation wasn’t cheerful, as it normally was; the boy sounded on edge. Worried about something. And in my experience, not many things set young master Winston on edge.
I opened the door and entered the richly furnished house, taking off my coat and scarf and hanging them on a hook in the foyer. I took my violin into the next room, looking around for a moment.
The living quarters were rich and beautiful. The floors were hardwood, as were the legs of the sofas and chairs. The upholstery was done in black leather with brass tacks. A silver chandelier hung from the ceiling, and a huge, elaborate fireplace took up the far wall.
Winston stood in the middle of the room, his own 3/4 size violin held in one hand, the bow hanging from a finger, and his other flipping through a book on a music stand in front of him.
“Winston?” I said.
He looked up. His eyes were dry, but I could tell he’d been crying. His clothes were disheveled, like he’d slept in them. “Good morning, Mr. Trellworth,” he said.
“What’s going on, this morning?”
He shook his head, unwilling to speak. “May we start the lesson, please?”
I sighed. I wasn’t good with children. All I knew was music. But it was obvious to me that he was distressed, and I didn’t know what to say or do. I opened my violin case. A few moments later I’d tuned my instrument and tightened my bow. I had to say something. “What’s bothering you, master Winston?”
Again he shook his head. He pointed at the music book in front of him. “I want to learn this.”
I didn’t even have to look at the title of the piece to see that it was complicated. There was more black on the page than there was blank space. Complex runs, advanced techniques, and difficult cadences. “Winston . . . I don’t think you . . .” I cut myself off. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. If he was determined to learn God Save the King, there had to be a good reason. “Why Paganini? This is a very hard piece of music.”
“I want to make my dad happy,” he said.
“Your dad asked you to play this?”
“I asked him if he liked me. He said he’d like me if I played it.”
I hadn’t talked to Mr. Marchbury often. I didn’t know him well. But he’d asked his son to do the impossible. He had no intention of telling Winston he liked him. “Where is your dad, now, Winston?”
“I don’t know. He went away after . . . after . . .”
But whatever it was, he couldn’t bring himself to say it. He was tearing up again. I patted his head. “Never mind, master Winston. Don’t fret yourself about it. Is your mother feeling better?”
He let out a sob, burying his face in the crook of one arm as he sank to his knees. His voice was a muffled explosion of sorrow and anger. “She’s . . . dead!”
I knelt down beside him, setting my violin aside and putting both arms around him. “Oh, Winston,” was all I could bring myself to say. My heart ached for him.
We didn’t speak for several minutes. I stayed there, my mind going around in circles, wondering and not knowing. Trying to reconcile his father’s behavior with his mother’s death. He hadn’t been abusive. When she’d fallen sick, he’d spent every moment at home at her side, caring for her. Winston had told me so. He said he felt forgotten. Pushed aside. He was never allowed into the sick room.
At last I said, “Winston, come with me. There’s no sense in you staying here by yourself. We’ll get everything figured out and find your father.”
“He said he didn’t want to look at me again until I’d learned this piece.”
“I’m sure he’ll change his mind.”
“He won’t, Mr. Trellworth.”
I patted him on the back, standing up and helping him to his feet. “We’ll give it a try. Scotland Yard will find him soon enough. You’ll be together again. Give it a few days. You’ll be welcome to stay at my house while they search for him.”
“Thank you, Mr. Trellworth,” he said with a shaky breath.
Thirty minutes later we’d gathered his things and were on the street. The fog had let up and was replaced by a cold drizzle. I gave him my coat, and he wrapped himself up in it, pulling the collar over his head. I carried both violins under one arm, and a suitcase with my other hand. The rain pattered down on my hat and dripped onto my shoulders, soaking through my red cardigan. But I didn’t mind, so long as Winston didn’t catch cold.
I couldn’t help wondering about his father. Where he might be. How long it would take to find him. How long I’d be looking after Winston.
He was just a child, alone in the world. I was probably the only person who knew him and cared for him, now. As far as anyone else knew he was just another figure on the street, undefined, unrelated to the goings-on in their lives. They wouldn’t give him a second glance.
It was up to me to be a second father to him. To take care of him until his father arrived.
Or until he could take care of himself.
I knew it might be a long-term thing, but I didn’t care. I was the only friend he had.
Copyright by Carter Pierce, 2022