Story type: Literature
When I, Esther Summerson, was taken from the school where the early years of my childhood had been spent; having no home or parents, as had the other girls in the school, my guardian, Mr. Jarndyce, gave me a home with him, where I was companion to his young and lovely ward, Ada Clare. I soon grew deeply attached to Ada, the dearest girl in the world; to my guardian, the kindest and most thoughtful of men; and to Bleak House, my happy home.
One day, upon hearing of the death of a poor man whom we had known, and learning that he had left three motherless children in great poverty, my guardian and I set out to discover for ourselves the extent of their need. We were directed to a chandler’s shop in Bell Yard, a narrow, dark alley, where we found an old woman, who replied to my inquiry for Neckett’s children: “Yes, surely, Miss. Three pair, if you please. Door right opposite the stairs.” And she handed me a key across the counter. As she seemed to take it for granted I knew what to do with the key, I inferred it must be intended for the children’s door, so without any more questions I led the way up a dark stair.
Reaching the top room designated, I tapped at the door, and a little shrill voice inside said, “We are locked in. Mrs. Blinder’s got the key!”
I applied the key, and opened the door. In a poor room, with a sloping ceiling, and containing very little furniture, was a mite of a boy, some five or six years old, nursing and hushing a heavy child of eighteen months. There was no fire, though the weather was cold; both children were wrapped in some poor shawls and tippets, as a substitute. Their clothing was not so warm, however, but that their noses looked red and pinched, and their small figures shrunken, as the boy walked up and down, nursing and hushing the child with its head on his shoulder.
“Who has locked you up here alone?” we naturally asked.
“Charley,” said the boy.
“Is Charley your brother?”
“No, she’s my sister, Charlotte. Father called her Charley.”
“Are there any more of you besides Charley?”
“Me,” said the boy, “and Emma,” patting the child he was nursing, “and Charley.”
“Where is Charley now?”
“Out a-washing,” said the boy, beginning to walk up and down again, and even as he spoke there came into the room a very little girl, childish in figure, but shrewd and older looking in the face–pretty faced, too–wearing a womanly sort of a bonnet, much too large for her, and drying her bare arms on a womanly sort of apron. Her fingers were white and wrinkled with washing, and the soap-suds were yet smoking, which she wiped off her arms. But for this, she might have been a child, playing at washing, and imitating a poor working woman with a quick observation of the truth.
She had come running from some place in the neighborhood. Consequently, though she was very light, she was out of breath, and could not speak at first, as she stood panting and wiping her arms. “O, here’s Charley!” said the boy.
The child he was nursing stretched forward its arms and cried out to be taken by Charley. The little girl took it, in a womanly sort of manner belonging to the apron and the bonnet, and stood looking at us over the burden that clung to her most affectionately.
“Is it possible,” whispered my guardian, as he put a chair for the little creature, and got her to sit down with her load, the boy holding to her apron, “that this child works for the rest?
“Charley, Charley!” he questioned. “How old are you?”
“Over thirteen, sir,” replied the child.
“O, what a great age!” said my guardian. “And do you live here alone with these babies, Charley?”
“Yes, sir,” returned the child, looking up into his face with perfect confidence, “since father died.”
“And how do you live, Charley,” said my guardian, “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. 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, sir,” 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 ain’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 courts, 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?”
“O 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, 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 was 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 pretending to look out, when I found that Mrs. Blinder, from the shop below, had come in, and was talking to my guardian.
“It’s not much to forgive ’em the rent, sir,—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 to one of 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. “She’s as handy as it’s possible to be. Bless you sir, the way she tended them two children, after the mother died, was the talk of the yard! And it was a wonder to see her with him, after he was took ill, it really was!–‘Mrs. Blinder,’ he said to me, the very last he spoke–‘Mrs. Blinder, whatever my calling may have been, I see a Angel sitting in this room last night along with my child, and I trust her to our Father!’”
From all that we had heard and seen, we felt a deep interest in the bright, self-reliant little creature, with her womanly ways and burden of family cares, and my thoughts turned towards her many times, after we had kissed her, and taken her downstairs with us, and stopped to see her run away to her work. We saw her run, such a little, little creature, in her womanly bonnet and apron, through a covered way at the bottom of the court, and melt into the city’s strife and sound, like a dewdrop in an ocean.
Some weeks later, at the close of a happy evening spent at Bleak House with my guardian and my dearest girl, I went at last to my own room, and presently heard a soft tap at the door, so I said, “Come in!” and there came in a pretty little girl, neatly dressed in mourning, who dropped a curtsey.
“If you please, miss,” said the little girl in a soft voice, “I am Charley.”
“Why so you are,” said I, stooping down in astonishment, and giving her a kiss. “How glad am I to see you, Charley!”
“If you please, miss,” pursued Charley, “I’m your maid!”
“If you please, miss, I’m a present to you, with Mr. Jarndyce’s love. And O, miss,” says Charley, clapping her hands, with the tears starting down her dimpled cheeks, “Tom’s at school, if you please, and learning so good, and little Emma, she’s with Mrs. Blinder, miss, a-being took such care of! and Tom, he would have been at school–and Emma she would have been left with Mrs. Blinder–and me, I should have been here–all a deal sooner, miss; only Mr. Jarndyce thought Tom and Emma and me had better get a little used to parting, we was so small. Don’t cry, if you please, miss.”
“I can’t help it, Charley.”
“No, miss, nor I can’t help it,” said Charley. “And if you please, miss,” said Charley, “Mr. Jarndyce’s love, and he thinks you’ll like to teach me now and then. And if you please, Tom and Emma and me is to see each other once a month. And I’m so happy and so thankful, miss,” cried Charley with a heaving heart,–“and I’ll try to be such a good maid!”
Charley dried her eyes, and entered on her functions: going in her matronly little way about and about the room, and folding up everything she could lay her hands upon. Presently she came creeping back to my side, and said:
“O don’t cry, if you please, miss.”
And I said again, “I can’t help it.”
And Charley said again, “No, miss, nor I can’t help it.” And so, after all, I did cry for joy indeed, and so did she–and from that night my little maid shared in all the cares and duties, joys and sorrows of her mistress, and I grew to lean heavily upon the womanly, loving, little creature.
According to my guardian’s suggestion, I gave considerable time to Charley’s education, but I regret to say the results never reflected much credit upon my educational powers. As for writing–it was a trying business to Charley, in whose hand every pen appeared to become perversely animated, and to go wrong and crooked, and to stop and splash, and sidle into corners, like a saddle donkey. It was very odd to see what old letters Charley’s young hands had made. They, so shrivelled and tottering; it, so plump and round. Yet Charley was uncommonly expert at other things, and had as nimble little fingers as I ever watched.
“Well, Charley,” said I, looking over a copy of the letter O in which it was represented as square, triangular, pear-shaped, and collapsed in all kinds of ways, “We are improving. If we only get to make it round, we shall be perfect, Charley.”
Then I made one, and Charley made one, and the pen wouldn’t join Charley’s neatly, but twisted it up into a knot.
“Never mind, Charley. We shall do it in time.”
Charley laid down her pen, opened and shut her cramped little hand; and thanking me, got up and dropped me a curtsey, asking me if I knew a poor person by the name of Jenny. I answered that I did, but thought she had left the neighborhood altogether, “So she had, miss,” said Charley, “but she’s come back again, and she came about the house three or four days, hoping to get a glimpse of you, miss, but you were away. She saw me a-goin’ about, miss,” said Charley, with a short laugh of the greatest delight and pride, “and she thought I looked like your maid!”
“Did she though, really, Charley?”
“Yes, miss!” said Charley, “really and truly.” And Charley, with another short laugh of the purest glee, made her eyes very round again, and looked as serious as became my maid. I was never tired of seeing Charley in the full enjoyment of that great dignity, standing before me with her youthful face and figure, and her steady manner, and her childish exultation breaking through it now and then in the pleasantest way. And so long as she lived, the dignity of having been in my service was the greatest crown of glory to my little maid.
Although my efforts to make a scholar of Charley were never crowned with success, she had her own tastes and accomplishments, and dearly loved to bustle about the house, in her own particularly womanly way. To surround herself with great heaps of needlework–baskets-full and tables full–and do a little,–and spend a great deal of time in staring with her round eyes at what there was to do, and persuade herself that she was going to do it, were Charley’s great dignities and delights.
When we went to see the woman, Jenny, we found her in her poor little cottage, nursing a vagrant boy called Jo, a crossing-sweeper, who had tramped down from London, and was tramping he didn’t know where. Jenny, who had known him in London, had found him in a corner of the town, burning with fever, and taken him home to care for, Seeing that he was very ill, and fearing her husband’s anger at her having harbored him, when it was time for her husband to return home, she put a few half-pence together in his hand, and thrust him out of the house. We followed the wretched boy, and pitying his forlorn condition led him home with us, where he was made comfortable for the night in a loft-room by the stable. Charley’s last report was, that the boy was quiet. I went to bed very happy to think that he was sheltered, and was much shocked and grieved the next morning, when upon visiting his room we found him gone. At what time he had left, or how, or why, it seemed hopeless ever to divine, and after a thorough search of the country around, which lasted for five days, we abandoned all thought of ever clearing up the mystery surrounding the boy’s departure, nor was it until some time later that the secret was discovered.
Meanwhile, poor Jo left behind him a dread and infectious disease which Charley caught from him, and in twelve hours after his escape she was very, very ill. I nursed her myself, with tenderest care, bringing her back to her old childish likeness again. Then the disease came upon me, and in my weeks of mortal sickness, it was Charley’s love and care, and unending devotion that saved my life. It was Charley’s hand which removed every looking-glass from my rooms, that in my convalescence I might not be shocked by the alteration which the disease had wrought in the face she loved so dearly.
When I was able, Charley and I went away together, to the most friendly of villages, and in the home which my guardian’s care had provided, we enjoyed the hours of returning strength. There was a kindly housekeeper to trot after me with restoratives and strengthening delicacies, and a pony expressly for my use, and soon there were friendly faces of greeting in every cottage as we passed by. Thus with being much in the open air, playing with the village children, gossiping in many cottages, going on with Charley’s education, and writing long letters to my dearest girl, time slipped away, and I found myself quite strong again.
And to Charley,–now as well, and rosy, and pretty as one of Flora’s attendants, I give due credit, and the bond which binds me to my little maid is one which will only be severed when the days of Charley’s happy life are over.