A lighthearted story to start the year off the right way. This is about one of those moments in history that gives me the giggles every time I think about it, and I just hope I did it enough justice that it gives you the giggles too. So the timeline has been tweaked a little to make the story more condensed, and I took some artistic liberties, but the events are accurate. Two young girls did manage to fool Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, esteemed author of Sherlock Holmes, (as well as many many other people) with photographs of ‘real’ fairies. Like my other stories, this one pairs well with a cup of tea- may I suggest something floral? Chamomile, perhaps?
Cottingley, England. 1920
“The state you’re in!” Elsie’s mother’s voice crashed into the girls as they came into view, making them stop short at the parlor door. She rose from her seat at the window and strode towards them. Her stern posture somewhat ruined by the dimples flickering in her cheeks.
Frances, Elsie’s younger cousin, looked down guiltily at their bare feet, grass and mud clinging to their soles, and winced at the inches of sopping hem above their ankles.
“Where have you been? We have a visitor arriving soon.” Elsie’s mother cushioned the word visitor as though it were a precious vase. Elsie clutched her sketchbook tightly and glanced at Frances.
“We were visiting the fairies.” Frances said sweetly, exchanging a knowing look with Elsie and stifling a grin. The dimples in Elsie’s mother’s cheeks deepened and all hints of severity smoothed out with an indulgent smile.
Elsie’s father snapped his newspaper from where he sat on the settee. He did not look up, but Elsie could see the lines deepen on his forehead, and heard a distinctive short, sharp sniff.
“Did you see any today?” Elsie’s mother asked.
“Yeah, loads!” Frances replied, absently scratching one foot with the toes of the other.
Seeing an opportunity, Elsie added, “If father allowed us to use his camera again, we could have taken some more pictures to show you.” She sighed delicately, though loud enough to carry over her father’s paper barricade. He did not respond, but sat now too still for one supposedly reading.
“Never mind that,” her mother said with a wave. “Hurry and change into something dry, and put some shoes on. Elsie, help Frances fix her ribbon will you? And clean up that muck. You look like you’ve been living in the woods.”
Before the girls could obey, a crunching of gravel, the knocking on and creaking of the front door, and the purposeful footfalls of a man with an appointment made them scurry behind Elsie’s mother. There was a murmuring just beyond the parlor entranceway.
A servant appeared and announced, “Ma’am, the theosophist, Mr. Edward Garner is here.”
With a panicked and slightly exasperated look at Elsie, her mother removed a leaf from her daughter’s hair and said, “Send him in.”
The servant bowed, stepped aside, and gestured for their guest to enter.
The shine of his shoes entered first. The man followed. He wore a dark suit, white shirt, and an understated dark tie. His seams had been pressed, and his tailor- most likely- well paid for his diligence. His hair was white, and his salt and pepper goatee was trimmed neatly. He stood in the doorway with the air of a man used to speaking from podiums. Surveying the parlor, he caught sight of the nature-tumbled girls, opened his palms by his sides, and beamed.
“And this must be Miss Elsie and Frances Griffiths,” he said. The girls said nothing, they simply stared.
“The very same,” Elsie’s mother nodded and shot a look at Elsie that compelled her to step forward.
“I’m Elsie, sir, and this is my cousin, Frances.”
Frances took a half step forward. Mr. Gardner beamed wider still and shook each of their hands in turn. He did not appear to notice their grubby nails and mud smeared palms.
“Marvelous!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been so looking forward to meeting the girls who discovered fairies!” He bounced slightly on the balls of his feet and wrung his hands excitedly.
Frances giggled, “Our fairies?”
“Yes indeed little Miss, you and your cousin have made a breakthrough of religious proportion. To think that you have done what many have tried and failed to do; captured fairies on film! And it’s not just me who wants to see them, I have been sent by my dear friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He entrusted me to determine whether these photographs are to be believed.” He inflated visibly at the mention of his friend and looked around expectantly.
The girls exchanged a glance. Elsie felt her cheeks flush and her stomach flutter. “Sir Arthu… you mean…” she began.
“The great author of Sherlock Holmes, naturally.” Mr. Gardner supplied, standing taller.
“He wants to see our fairies too?” Frances asked incredulously.
“That he does, that he does. He has even sent you each a camera to use as a thank you for documenting these elusive creatures.”
The two girls were speechless. Mr. Gardner appeared to take it as a sign of awe and gratitude. Elsie’s father finally lowered his paper.
“Arthur Wright,” he said to Mr. Gardner by way of introduction. Mr. Gardner shook his offered hand. “How did you hear about the girls’ photographs?” Arthur asked.
“Dear, I told you,” Elsie’s mother hurried to explain, “I shared them at the Theosophical Society’s lecture in Bradford last year. Mr. Gardner saw them and…”
“Became captivated by them!” Mr. Gardner finished merrily. “Now,” he turned to the girls, “if I may, where can I see the fairies?”
Elsie shifted her sketchbook slightly behind her and looked away. Frances scratched her foot again absentmindedly and said, “Well, the thing is, sir, you can’t.” The words were pulled from her slowly by the steady gaze of the eager theosophist.
Mr. Gardner looked like a balloon that had just met a pin and began to deflate before their eyes. “I ca-” he began.
“Because they don’t show themselves to adults… especially men.” Elsie cut him off, giving Frances’ hand a squeeze.
A silence echoed around them as Mr. Gardner visibly fought with his disappointment.
“Ah! Of course!” He said finally, re-inflating. “I should have guessed. Much like the myth of the Unicorn. Yes, very similar. I suppose it follows. Quite right. Say no more! That’s what the cameras are for after all. I will… well you two go and find the fairies, and I will…”
“Would you like a cup of tea Mr. Gardner?” Elsie’s mother offered. “And maybe some biscuits while you wait?”
Mr. Gardner beamed. It was settled. The girls were each given a new camera and set off towards the beck, a small stream in the woods at the back of the property. Mr. Gardner remained inside with Mr. and Mrs. Wright as the latter suggested. The former skeptic, Mr. Wright was only too eager to insist that he had believed, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in the photographs from the moment he saw them.
Elsie and Frances, feet still wet from earlier, carried their cameras and a pouch filled with secrets into the woods.
“Isn’t it wonderful to have Sherlock Holmes investigate our fairies?” Frances whispered. “What if he finds out they’re fake?”
“What if he doesn’t?” Elsie whispered even quieter, her eyes sparkled.
It had drizzled all morning and tiny pearls of rain glistened from leaves and petals across the garden. As the girls passed through the trees, their pace slowed to one of reverence. Their hands fell to their sides to caress the still-damp leaves in their path. Moss absorbed their footfalls. Their steady breathing mingled and became lost in the breeze flickering through the trees. Sunlight shone in dappled patterns around them, illuminating their eyelashes and dancing through their hair. The beck giggled away to their right, guiding their course.
Theirs was a place of whispers.
Standing stone still, moss creeping up their heels, the girls paused with hands held. The sounds of the woods floated around them. A robin’s song rippled from a nearby branch. It did not take much imagination to believe that this was a realm for fairies.
The girls set to work. Elsie, with an artist’s eye, selected the perfect location. Frances readied one of the cameras and passed Elsie the small pouch. Elsie carefully retrieved a few hatpins and her latest creation: a delicate dancing figure with dragonfly wings, her arms outstretched and toes pointed, carefully cut from paper. Admiring the way the sunlight shimmered through the thin paper, she began positioning the tiny figure among the leaves and secured it with a hatpin. She stood back to regard the effect with her head tilted, readjusted the hatpin, and considered it again. It was a while before she was satisfied.
“Ok, now Frances, you stand there and look as though this fairy is flying towards you… hang on, let me fix your ribbon.”
The shutter clicked and clicked again. The paper coming to life with each picture captured. Finally, as though completing a ritual, the girls took their little paper muses to the beck and watched them float away. One got caught briefly in an eddy and Elsie swore she heard it laughing.
Once the film had been developed, the girls showed their pictures to Mr. Gardner triumphantly. He was speechless for a time and appeared to be blurred around the edges, such was his excitement.
“Marvelous!” he exclaimed. “Oh I can just hear my dear friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle now, I’ll show him the photographs and ask, ‘Is this mere imagination?’ and he will laugh that laugh of his and reply, ‘How often is imagination the mother of truth?’” Mr. Gardner chuckled to himself, then, seeing the blank look on the girls’ faces, added, “Just a little Sherlock Holmes joke for you.”
They smiled weakly.
A few months passed after Mr. Gardner’s visit. Elsie was reading to Frances by the fire. A shriek shattered the tranquil moment and Elsie’s mother ran into the room holding a magazine and a crumpled letter to her breast.
“Girls! My darling girls! It’s your fairies! Sir Arthur- he’s written an article! Sent us a copy. In a magazine! Apparently it has already sold out. They’re having to reprint. Can you believe? You! You two have brought the discovery of fairies to the world!” She paused for breath, face glowing and letter still clutched tightly in her fist. She thrust the magazine at Elsie who accepted it in stunned silence.
“Arthur!” Elsie’s mother shrieked. “Arthur, you must see this!” and she vanished from the room as quickly as she had come.
The two girls looked at each other and Elsie slowly opened the magazine. There were their photographs in the middle of an eight page article boldly titled: The Evidence for Fairies. Their names had been changed, but their faces were very much still clearly in the photographs.
Elsie quickly scanned the article and read the caption under the picture of Frances and the leaping fairy out loud, “‘The fairy is leaping up from leaves below and hovering for a moment. It had done so three or four times. Rising a little higher than before, Alice’ – that’s you Frances- ‘thought it would touch her face and involuntarily tossed her head back.’ He then says, ‘A girl of fifteen is old enough to be a good witness, and her flight and the clear detail of her memory point to a real experience.’”
She put a hand to her mouth as Frances snatched the magazine from her to read it herself.
“But…” Frances said finally, “he’s a detective!”
“No, he just writes about one.” Elsie said quietly.
“But he should be cleverer because he writes about one.”
“Maybe…” Elsie scanned the article again, her fingers brushing the image of the leaping fairy. “Maybe he just wants to believe they’re real?”
“Oh.” Frances scratched the top of one foot with the other, thinking. “Well… well now we really can’t tell him the truth.” she said.
“No. We’d ruin it.” Elsie agreed.
“So, what now?”
“I guess… the game is afoot. Not a word, Watson!”
Images taken from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cottingley_Fairies
To read Sir Arthur Conan’s article, The Evidence for Fairies visit: https://www.arthur-conan-doyle.com/index.php/The_Evidence_for_Fairies