The three children close together, and two of them relying solely on the third, and the third so young and yet with an air of age and steadiness that sat so strangely on the childish figure.
"Charley, Charley!" said my guardian. "How old are you?"
"Over thirteen, sir," replied the child.
"Oh! What a great age," said my guardian. "What a great age, Charley!"
I cannot describe the tenderness with which he spoke to her, half playfully yet all the more compassionately and mournfully.
"And do you live alone here with these babies, Charley?" said my guardian.
"Yes, sir," returned the child, looking up into his face with perfect confidence, "since father died."
"And how do you live, Charley? Oh! Charley," said my guardian, turning his face away for a moment, "how do you live?"
"Since father died, sir, I've gone out to work. I'm out washing to-day."
"God help you, Charley!" said my guardian. "You're not tall enough to reach the tub!"
"In pattens I am, sir," she said quickly. "I've got a high pair as belonged to mother."
"And when did mother die? Poor mother!"
"Mother died just after Emma was born," said the child, glancing at the face upon her bosom. "Then father said I was to be as good a mother to her as I could. And so I tried. And so I worked at home and did cleaning and nursing and washing for a long time before I began to go out. And that's how I know how; don't you see, sir?"
"And do you often go out?"
"As often as I can," said Charley, opening her eyes and smiling, "because of earning sixpences and shillings!"
"And do you always lock the babies up when you go out?"
"To keep 'em safe, sir, don't you see?" said Charley. "Mrs. Blinder comes up now and then, and Mr. Gridley comes up sometimes, and perhaps I can run in sometimes, and they can play you know, and Tom an't afraid of being locked up, are you, Tom?"
"No-o!" said Tom stoutly.
"When it comes on dark, the lamps are lighted down in the court, and they show up here quite bright--almost quite bright. Don't they, Tom?"
"Yes, Charley," said Tom, "almost quite bright."
"Then he's as good as gold," said the little creature--Oh, in such a motherly, womanly way! "And when Emma's tired, he puts her to bed. And when he's tired he goes to bed himself. And when I come home and light the candle and has a bit of supper, he sits up again and has it with me. Don't you, Tom?"
"Oh, yes, Charley!" said Tom. "That I do!" And either in this glimpse of the great pleasure of his life or in gratitude and love for Charley, who was all in all to him, he laid his face among the scanty folds of her frock and passed from laughing into crying.
It was the first time since our entry that a tear had been shed among these children. The little orphan girl had spoken of their father and their mother as if all that sorrow were subdued by the necessity of taking courage, and by her childish importance in being able to work, and by her bustling busy way. But now, when Tom cried, although she sat quite tranquil, looking quietly at us, and did not by any movement disturb a hair of the head of either of her little charges, I saw two silent tears fall down her face.
I stood at the window with Ada, pretending to look at the housetops, and the blackened stack of chimneys, and the poor plants, and the birds in little cages belonging to the neighbours, when I found that Mrs. Blinder, from the shop below, had come in (perhaps it had taken her all this time to get upstairs) and was talking to my guardian.
"It's not much to forgive 'em the rent, sir," she said; "who could take it from them!"
"Well, well!" said my guardian to us two. "It is enough that the time will come when this good woman will find that it WAS much, and that forasmuch as she did it unto the least of these--This child," he added after a few moments, "could she possibly continue this?"
"Really, sir, I think she might," said Mrs. Blinder, getting her heavy breath by painful degrees. "She's as handy as it's possible to be.