‘Nor any of the people?’ she asked, glancing at the listless crowd within. ‘O are you quite sure and certain, Bob?’
At this difficult point of the conversation Bob gave in, and changed the subject to hard-bake: always his last resource when he found his little friend getting him into a political, social, or theological corner. But this was the origin of a series of Sunday excursions that these two curious companions made together. They used to issue from the lodge on alternate Sunday afternoons with great gravity, bound for some meadows or green lanes that had been elaborately appointed by the turnkey in the course of the week; and there she picked grass and flowers to bring home, while he smoked his pipe. Afterwards, there were tea-gardens, shrimps, ale, and other delicacies; and then they would come back hand in hand, unless she was more than usually tired, and had fallen asleep on his shoulder.
In those early days, the turnkey first began profoundly to consider a question which cost him so much mental labour, that it remained undetermined on the day of his death. He decided to will and bequeath his little property of savings to his godchild, and the point arose how could it be so ‘tied up’ as that only she should have the benefit of it? His experience on the lock gave him such an acute perception of the enormous difficulty of ‘tying up’ money with any approach to tightness, and contrariwise of the remarkable ease with which it got loose, that through a series of years he regularly propounded this knotty point to every new insolvent agent and other professional gentleman who passed in and out.
‘Supposing,’ he would say, stating the case with his key on the professional gentleman’s waistcoat; ‘supposing a man wanted to leave his property to a young female, and wanted to tie it up so that nobody else should ever be able to make a grab at it; how would you tie up that property?’
‘Settle it strictly on herself,’ the professional gentleman would complacently answer.
‘But look here,’ quoth the turnkey. ‘Supposing she had, say a brother, say a father, say a husband, who would be likely to make a grab at that property when she came into it–how about that?’
‘It would be settled on herself, and they would have no more legal claim on it than you,’ would be the professional answer.
‘Stop a bit,’ said the turnkey. ‘Supposing she was tender-hearted, and they came over her. Where’s your law for tying it up then?’
The deepest character whom the turnkey sounded, was unable to produce his law for tying such a knot as that. So, the turnkey thought about it all his life, and died intestate after all.
But that was long afterwards, when his god-daughter was past sixteen. The first half of that space of her life was only just accomplished, when her pitiful and plaintive look saw her father a widower. From that time the protection that her wondering eyes had expressed towards him, became embodied in action, and the Child of the Marshalsea took upon herself a new relation towards the Father.
At first, such a baby could do little more than sit with him, deserting her livelier place by the high fender, and quietly watching him. But this made her so far necessary to him that he became accustomed to her, and began to be sensible of missing her when she was not there. Through this little gate, she passed out of childhood into the care-laden world.
What her pitiful look saw, at that early time, in her father, in her sister, in her brother, in the jail; how much, or how little of the wretched truth it pleased God to make visible to her; lies hidden with many mysteries. It is enough that she was inspired to be something which was not what the rest were, and to be that something, different and laborious, for the sake of the rest. Inspired? Yes. Shall we speak of the inspiration of a poet or a priest, and not of the heart impelled by love and self-devotion to the lowliest work in the lowliest way of life!
With no earthly friend to help her, or so much as to see her, but the one so strangely assorted; with no knowledge even of the common daily tone and habits of the common members of the free community who are not shut up in prisons; born and bred in a social condition, false even with a reference to the falsest condition outside the walls; drinking from infancy of a well whose waters had their own peculiar stain, their own unwholesome and unnatural taste; the Child of the Marshalsea began her womanly life.
No matter through what mistakes and discouragements, what ridicule (not unkindly meant, but deeply felt) of her youth and little figure, what humble consciousness of her own babyhood and want of strength, even in the matter of lifting and carrying; through how much weariness and hopelessness, and how many secret tears; she drudged on, until recognised as useful, even indispensable. That time came. She took the place of eldest of the three, in all things but precedence; was the head of the fallen family; and bore, in her own heart, its anxieties and shames.
At thirteen, she could read and keep accounts, that is, could put down in words and figures how much the bare necessaries that they wanted would cost, and how much less they had to buy them with. She had been, by snatches of a few weeks at a time, to an evening school outside, and got her sister and brother sent to day-schools by desultory starts, during three or four years. There was no instruction for any of them at home; but she knew well–no one better–that a man so broken as to be the Father of the Marshalsea, could be no father to his own children.
To these scanty means of improvement, she added another of her own contriving. Once, among the heterogeneous crowd of inmates there appeared a dancing-master. Her sister had a great desire to learn the dancing-master’s art, and seemed to have a taste that way. At thirteen years old, the Child of the Marshalsea presented herself to the dancing-master, with a little bag in her hand, and preferred her humble petition.
‘If you please, I was born here, sir.’
‘Oh! You are the young lady, are you?’ said the dancing-master, surveying the small figure and uplifted face.
‘And what can I do for you?’ said the dancing-master.
‘Nothing for me, sir, thank you,’ anxiously undrawing the strings of the little bag; ‘but if, while you stay here, you could be so kind as to teach my sister cheap–’
‘My child, I’ll teach her for nothing,’ said the dancing-master, shutting up the bag. He was as good-natured a dancing-master as ever danced to the Insolvent Court, and he kept his word. The sister was so apt a pupil, and the dancing-master had such abundant leisure to bestow upon her (for it took him a matter of ten weeks to set to his creditors, lead off, turn the Commissioners, and right and left back to his professional pursuits), that wonderful progress was made. Indeed the dancing-master was so proud of it, and so wishful to display it before he left to a few select friends among the collegians, that at six o’clock on a certain fine morning, a minuet de la cour came off in the yard–the college-rooms being of too confined proportions for the purpose–in which so much ground was covered, and the steps were so conscientiously executed, that the dancing-master, having to play the kit besides, was thoroughly blown.
The success of this beginning, which led to the dancing-master’s continuing his instruction after his release, emboldened the poor child to try again. She watched and waited months for a seamstress. In the fulness of time a milliner came in, and to her she repaired on her own behalf.
‘I beg your pardon, ma’am,’ she said, looking timidly round the door of the milliner, whom she found in tears and in bed: ‘but I was born here.’
Everybody seemed to hear of her as soon as they arrived; for the milliner sat up in bed, drying her eyes, and said, just as the dancing-master had said:
‘Oh! _You_ are the child, are you?’
‘I am sorry I haven’t got anything for you,’ said the milliner, shaking her head.
‘It’s not that, ma’am. If you please I want to learn needle-work.’
‘Why should you do that,’ returned the milliner, ‘with me before you? It has not done me much good.’