This story is inspired by the fairy tale, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, that I’m sure you all know and love.
With no further preamble, here it is. Read and Enjoy.
It has not had a full edit, yet so there might be a few discrepancies. I have done a first edit, but it needs more. But if I leave it, then it won’t be ready until after Christmas.
The little girl woke as a loud voice called, “Come on, you lazy bunch of layabouts. Time to be working.”
She struggled to a sitting position stiff from sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor.
A lad of about twelve thrust a piece of stale bread into her hand. ” Get your water from yon bucket.” He passed on to the next child.
Yesterday, a woman who called herself Annie, had brought her here, but where ‘here’ was, she had no idea. Annie had found her crying and shivering in the street. She had been nice to her, told her she would take her somewhere where she would have a roof over her head and something to eat.
There were five other mattresses on the floor, and children were slowly getting up from them. The boy with the bread was handing a slice to each child.
She took a bite from her slice. It was hard and tasted slightly mouldy, but she was hungry, so she swallowed it.
There were some chipped cups next to the bucket of water, and she dipped one to fill it. She gulped the drink down.
She gazed around the room. The ceiling sloped and had wooden beams. The floor was bare wood and apart from the mattresses, there was nothing else.
A door opened and the man who had shouted at the children entered.
“You. Come here.” He pointed at the little girl. “What’s your name?”
She looked around to make sure it was her the man was talking to, then tiptoed towards him.
“M-m-my n-n-na…” She burst into tears.
“Stop that. I am Mr Smith. You will call me ‘Sir’. Got that? If you can’t tell me your name, I’ll call you Goldie. Now Goldie, how old are you? Do you know? You look about five.”
Mr Smith looked down his long nose. “When Annie found you on the street yesterday, you were alone. Do you have any family?”
Goldie shook her head, still snuffling.
Mr Smith nodded and smiled. He looked at Goldie out of the corner of his eye. ” I’m going to help you, Goldie, and you will help me. You’ll get shelter and food from me, and in return you’ll work for me.”
The door opened at that moment and a woman entered. “Oh, I see you have a new child.” She strolled up to Goldie and lifted a lock of her hair. “What a lovely colour. Like spun gold. She’ll make a good candidate for one of my girls.”
“Not until she’s much older, Mary.” Mr Smith laughed.
“Undesirable as many of your clients are, I don’t think babies are on their list.”
Mary shook her head, smiling. “You’d be surprised what some of my clients want. I can supply most things, but even I draw the line at very young children. “
“Most noble of you. But you aren’t getting Goldie. She’s much too valuable to me.”
“Begging? Yes, I can see such a pretty child would make the punters feel guilty and then they’ll give more.” She gave a short laugh. “But bear me in mind when she gets old enough to join my establishment.”
“What do you want? You wouldn’t come up here for nothing.”
“Oh, I heard about your new acquisition and wanted to see if she is as pretty as rumour has it.”
Mr Smith shook his head. “Annie only found her yesterday, and already everyone knows about her.”
“Well, you know what it’s like round here. I’m off now I’ve seen her. Remember me when she’s grown up enough.”
She flitted through the door, leaving Mr Smith scowling. He turned to Goldie. “You’re to go with Jack. He’ll teach you what to do. Now get out of my sight.”
Jack pulled Goldie towards the door as Mr Smith reached for a cane that stood next to the bucket of water.
“Come over here, Peter,” she heard him say. He swished the cane, and it made a buzzing sound as it passed through the air. “I’ll teach you to keep money back. You need to hand over all you get.”
A snuffling boy of about eight years old dragged his feet as he walked across the room.
“Come on.” Jack dragged her out of the door, pinching her arm as he did so.
“Ow!” Goldie shook him off as they descended the stairs. “What’ll happen to Peter?”
“Get switched. Prob’ly have a meal stopped, too. Shouldna have kept money back. Mr Smith likes switchin’ he does. Don’t give him any chance to switch you. Do as he says, right and proper, and you will be alright.”
Goldie looked around. “What is this place? Who lives in these rooms?”
Jack shrugged. “Mr Smith lives in one. Annie in another. The rest are Mary and her girls.”
“Mary said she wants me for one of her girls when I am grown. What do her girls do?”
Jack paused on the stairs. “They’re whores. Know what them is?”
“I think so. A whore lived near us, before mamma died.” She sniffed and ran a hand across her face leaving a dirty smudge. “Lots and lots of men visited her. Mamma said she sold her body to them.” She screwed her face up. “I didn’t understand what she meant by that.”
They reached the door and Jack led her into the street. Rubbish blew past them, and the wind whipped Goldie’s hair into her eyes. A scrawny cat jumped onto a wall opposite.
Jack turned right along the street. Tall tenement blocks of houses rose on either side, cutting out the sunlight and making a corridor for the wind.
Goldie pulled her threadbare cardigan closely around her as she followed Jack along the familiar streets. She had lived all her short life in one of the rooms in a house very similar to those they now passed. Her mother scraped a living since her father died by working in one of the cotton mills nearby. Goldie would have been working there soon. She would have had the job of scavenging; scrambling under the looms to retrieve the bits of cotton that fell there. It was a dangerous job. Many children Goldie had known had been severely injured, ending as cripples. Some even died under the looms.
Then her mother became ill. She had been vomiting continuously, and had severe diarrhoea and died. There had been no relatives to care for Goldie, and the little girl was on the streets at the tender age of five.
When Annie found her she promised her somewhere to sleep and food to eat if she would work for Mr Smith..
I think working for Mr Smith would be better than the mill.
The little girl reasoned that even if Mr Smith were a hard man, and it seemed he was, if she were a good girl and did as she was told, she would not get the cane.
Following Jack, she found herself in a part of the town she did not know well. They sat on the ground opposite a church.
Bells rang from the steeple calling the people to worship.
Goldie noticed the gravestones surrounding the building. Her mother would not have the luxury of such. Goldie did not know what had happened to her mother’s body. People came and took it away.
A woman arrived to take her to the orphanage. The little girl had a fear of that place. Her mother had often threatened to send her there when she was angry.
This area was where the middle classes lived. What Goldie’s mother would call ‘posh’ houses surrounded the church.
The street was clean. Goldie looked at the houses. Most were tall with three stories above road level, and some had steps leading to a basement. Doors opened and people dressed in their best clothes flocked towards the church.
The men wore black or dark brown suits with white shirts and colourful cravats. High black hats were the height of fashion and every man sported one, removing it before entering the building.They shepherded their wives dressed in more colourful attire, although still fairly sober for church. Most of the dresses had bustles, but a few of the older women still wore the wide, hooped crinolines. Like the men, all wore hats.
They hustled their children into the church, barely looking at the two raggedy children sitting opposite.
Goldie’s face fell. “What will happen if we don’t take anything back to Mr Smith? Will he switch us?”
Jack patted her on the back. “Don’t worry, Goldie. When they come out, they’ll feel they should do something for charity and then they’ll give us money. I ain’t never been here on a church day when I got nothing.”
The few passersby sniffed as they walked past, and one or two crossed the road. A couple dropped a few small coins in the children’s hats, but it was a pitifully small amount. Then the church doors opened. The people spilled onto the road. A carriage drawn by a bay horse drew up and a family climbed inside. The carriage trotted away.
People chattered outside the church. Goldie noticed the congregation beginning to disperse and was about to give Hyup hope of anyone giving them alms.
It was then that Jack stood. “Please spare a coin. Me and me sister ’are hungry. We ain’t had nuffin to eat since yesterday morning.” He reached out a hand as a couple passed.
The woman searched in her bag and tossed a penny to the pair.
A little girl looked at Goldie. “Mamma, we can’t let such a pretty little girl starve. Give her something.”
The mother puckered her brow. “How do we know they will spend it on food? You know what these beggars are like.”
The girl looked shocked. “Mamma! You heard what the vicar said. ‘Jesus said when you feed one of these poor people, you are feeding me.’ And he said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’ Jesus would not have left them begging without giving them something.”
The girl’s father had come up to them. “She’s right, you know.” He felt in his pocket and dropped a coin into the hat. Then he shepherded them away.
Jack looked into the hat on the floor. His eyes opened wide. “A shilling! He gave us a whole shilling!”
During the next few hours several more people gave them money, and when the daylight began to fade, they made their way back to the house where Mr Smith lived.
When he saw how much they had gathered, his face almost split with his grin. “I knew you would be good as a beggar, Goldie. Now go and get something to eat.”
They had not eaten all day, and Goldie’s stomach growled. She crossed the room to where Annie stood with a cauldron. As she approached, Annie lifted a bowl and spooned some of the contents of the cauldron into it. She handed it, along with a spoon and a slice of bread, to Goldie.
Goldie looked into the bowl. There was what looked like a piece of fat and a few carrots floating in a greasy liquid. She sat on her mattress and spooned some into her mouth. It tasted like it looked; a greasy, watery liquid with very little sustenance. But she was very hungry, so she wiped the stale bread around the bowl and forced the meagre repast down. When she had taken the bowl back to Annie, she lay on her pallet. Still hungry, she fell asleep.
The next few weeks were the same. She went out with Jack and sat next to him on a pavement somewhere richer folk would pass. He told her that Mr Smith was very pleased with the money they were making. Soon he was going to let Goldie go out on her own.
She shivered at that thought. Yes, Jack had taught her the things to say, how to say it and what to do, but the thought of being out there on her own made her tremble. What if she was no good at begging? She had seen enough to know that Mr Smith would make no concessions for a novice. She had been lucky so far and had not been beaten, but if she did not make enough money, she would certainly feel the switch.
She crept out on her first day. Where to go? It was not Sunday, so it was no good going to a church. The shops. Yes. She would go to the shops. Sometimes people bought food for her from one of the stalls.
I hope Mr Smith doesn’t find out about the food. I don’t think he’d understand.
She sat on the pavement and shivered. Winter was on the way. Her clothes had become even more ragged in the weeks she had been in Mr Smith’s ‘employ’, as he called it. She was permanently hungry, and getting even thinner than she had been when she first started ‘working’. A tear formed in the corner of her eye. Her stomach rumbled. It did nothing but rumble these days. Mr Smith and Annie gave them enough food–just. How she longed for a full stomach. Or a fullish one would be enough.
Here comes a kind-looking woman.
Goldie let a tear fall. “Missus, a coin please. I’m so very hungry.” That’s true. “I have no home. No one to feed me. Please. Just a farthing.” She held out her hand.
The woman walked past, drawing her skirts in as she did so.
Not kind at all.
The next three people passed with barely a glance at her.
A man threw a penny in her direction. It struck her on the arm. She rubbed it and went to pick up the penny.
As she did so, she heard the man say to his companion, “I don’t know why these beggars are allowed where decent people live.” He glanced at Goldie. “But one has to do one’s bit. I give alms as the Church says we should.”
I bet he’s never been hungry.
The men disappeared around a corner.
A costermonger pushed his barrow along the street. He had fruit for sale.
I wonder if I have enough to buy an apple. She looked at the few pennies, halfpennies and farthings she had collected. No. I don’t want to be beaten.
That evening, after eating the thin gruel Annie provided, Mr Smith came to her mattress. She cowered. What had she done?
“I knew you would be good. Folks are sorry for a pretty little girl. That was a nice haul you got today.” He stared at her with his eyes narrowed. “You must do the same tomorrow. Make them feel extra sorry for you. Mebbe you can get some silver coins. Threepenny bits, tanners or even a shilling. You work on ’em. Here.” He handed her a bowl and spoon. “Some extra as a reward.”
Goldie stared at the gruel, then, dipping her spoon into it, she gobbled the foul stuff.
That night she slept badly. She shivered, and not only from the cold. What would Mr Smith do if she did not get any silver coins? Would he take the switch to her?
The next day her fears were realised. It was cold, and snow began to fall. The middle classes stayed at home, except for the men rushing to work, and rushing home again.
Goldie pulled her shawl closely around herself, but it made little difference. People were too anxious to get home out of the snow to think about the little girl on the street corner. She dragged her feet on her way home.
“You must have spent some of the money.” Mr Smith’s eyes blazed. “You can’t have only got this much.” He tipped the two pennies and one farthing onto the table.
“It snowed.” She began to cry. “Everyone hurried past.”
“Well, I don’t believe you.” Mr Smith reached for his cane. “You spent some.”
That night she felt the switch for the first time.
Swish “One.” Swish. “Two.” Swish. “Three. I’ll be lenient and stop at three, but if you spend any more of my money, you will get the full six.” He leaned the cane against the wall and left.
Sobbing, she lay on her stomach. Her back burned. She reached around and her fingers came away bloody. She had not had anything to eat. Mr Smith had refused to allow her any gruel.
A shuffling made her turn. One of the other children, a girl of nine, crouched by Goldie’s pallet.
She held a bowl half full of gruel. “I knew he wouldn’t feed you tonight so I saved some of my food for you.”
Goldie sat up and passed her hand over her eyes. “Why?”
“Why are you giving me your food?”
“Mr Smith is a bad man. He treats us bad. But it’s better than the streets. Lots die in the cold out there. Lots get other horrid things done to them. Lots become cripples. I like you, so I give you some food.”
Goldie had not heard this girl say so much before. She had always been quiet.
She took the bowl. “Thank you.” She put it to her mouth and drank the thin broth. Although it did not satisfy her hunger, the empty feeling went away a bit.
The next day was Christmas, so Mr Smith told them. People would be feeling generous. They would be walking the streets visiting friends and relatives after Church. “Go and make the most of it. Beggars, look pathetic, and pickpockets, be sneaky. Merry Christmas, and good pickings.”
As the children descended the stairs, Jack tapped Goldie on the shoulder. “Mr Smith put me on pickpocketing. Go to my old spot by the Church. Should do well today.”
Goldie trudged through the snow and leaned against a wall. She thought the church looked pretty with the snow on the roof and spire. Snow coated the ancient yew trees, and the gravestones looked as if they had white hats.
The bells began to ring, calling the worshippers to Christmas Mass. Shortly, doors opened along the street as families made their way to the church. Everyone called “Merry Christmas” to their neighbours, and children laughed in anticipation of the presents to be opened later.
No one noticed the small girl, shivering by the church wall.
The door of a house opposite the church opened. A man strode out, followed by a boy of about eight.
The man turned back. “Hurry. We’re going to be late.”
“Just fixing my hat, dear.” A woman came out pulling on a pair of gloves. She turned back. “Hurry, Jane. You must not be late for church. Not today, on the birthday of Our Lord. Has Mrs White left already?”
A young woman rushed out pulling the door closed behind her. “Coming, Mrs Beare. Yes, Mrs White is probably already in the church. She has everything ready for dinner, so she went ahead.”
They passed Goldie without giving her a single glance. She watched them enter the Church, and soon heard singing; beautiful Christmas carols.
The sky looked leaden. The wind blew the snow into little heaps in corners and at the base of walls. Goldie looked at the houses lining the street.
I bet it is warm inside. I would love to go into one, just for a few minutes, to get warm.
Her teeth started chattering as an extra strong gust of wind swept along the street. As she watched, the door to the house where the Beare family lived swung slightly open. Goldie’s eyes popped. The maid must have failed to close it properly in her hurry when she left.
Could I? Should I?
Goldie sprinted across the street. Has God done this so I can get warm? Looking around, and noticing the street was empty, the little girl slipped through the door. She pushed it so it looked closed, and gazed around.
She was in a narrow hallway with stairs climbing on the right. A narrow table stood at the bottom of the stairs with a vase containing dried flowers standing on it.
Doors opened on the left and right. Goldie picked the left one. Entering a large room, she gave a sigh. Warm. A fire surrounded by a metal fire guard burned in the grate, damped down while the family was out. She ran across the room and held her hands to the blissful warmth. A smile lit her face.
Three chairs surrounded the fire. One had large arms and wings on either side of the back.
That one would swallow me up.
She looked at the second chair. It was smaller, with smaller arms and was not a wing back chair.
Gentleman and ladies’ chairs. Too big for me.
She gazed at the third chair. It looked like a child’s seat. Much smaller than the others, and placed right in front of the fire where she could warm her feet.
As the cold seeped out of her bones, Goldie began to look around. In the window stood a large tree. The family had decorated it with wooden ornaments, all different shapes and brightly painted. She also spotted some sweets hanging in little bags. A large star decorated the top.
Below the tree was a nativity scene with little figures representing the Holy Family, shepherds with their sheep and three wise men carrying elaborate boxes. A donkey and cow completed the scene.
Over the fireplace was a large mirror. That someone had decorated with holly. The glossy, green leaves contrasted with the bright red berries. Branches of evergreen trees rested on other surfaces and gave a sweet scent to the room.
Goldie crept towards the tree. She longed to taste the sweets hanging there. She reached out her hand, but pulled it back. After standing there for a few minutes, she pulled a bag from the tree and opened it. Taking out one of the sweets, she popped it into her mouth. Sweetness burst over her tongue. She had never tasted anything so sweet, and she was unsure if she liked it. She spat the sweetmeat out and threw it into the fire.
On the mantelpiece, a clock ticked. It reminded her of the passing of time. How long would the church service last? When she’d sat outside before, it had seemed like a very long time.
It’s only just started. I can stay here for a bit longer. Then I can go and get money when the people come out.
She jumped up.
Suppose I could get something valuable from this house? Mr Smith would be pleased. He might even give me extra food like he did when I got some silver coins.
She gazed around the room. Most things in here were too big to fit in a pocket. Maybe the room across the hallway.
Rising, Goldie crossed the hallway and entered a room with a large table in the centre. It was set for three people with crystal wine glasses and silver cutlery. In the centre was a bowl with holly and ivy.
She picked up a silver spoon and popped it into her pocket. That would be worth more than she could collect by begging. Perhaps there would be more. Jewellery, maybe.
On leaving the room, she was drawn to the stairs leading to the basement. Enticing smells wafted up to her and her stomach growled. Maybe she could find something to eat down there before going upstairs. Careful, in case there was a servant who had not gone to church, Goldie crept slowly down.
The stairs led into a kitchen with a range at one end and a scrubbed wooden table in the centre. A cupboard stood opposite the window and on it were some mince pies and a large Christmas cake. Goldie picked up one of the pies and bit into it.
“Ow! That’s hot.” She placed the pie back on the plate and looked around. There on the top of the range was a copper pan with soup in it. She felt in her pocket and fished out the spoon she had stolen from the dining room. Dipping it into the pan, she took a sip.
“Mmm. Delicious.” She continued eating until her stomach felt full.
Putting the spoon back in her pocket, she returned to the hall and then climbed the stairs to the landing. The first room she entered was a large bedroom overlooking the street. She peeped out of the window. No one about. They were still in church. Good.
The bed was huge, and covered with a red counterpane. Opposite it was a dressing table. That would be where she would most likely find jewellery.
There was nothing on the top, and so she pulled a drawer open. Scrabbling around she only found gloves and handkerchiefs. No jewellery there. The second drawer had a box in it. Goldie pulled the box out and opened it. Yes! Here was Mrs Beare’s jewellery. Now what to take. Nothing too obvious.
A brooch took her eye. It sparkled with what might be diamonds and was in the shape of a crescent moon. She slipped it into her pocket. Then she saw a beautiful pendant with a purple stone. She added that to her pocket. Mr Smith would be so pleased with her that he would never beat her again. She grinned.
I wonder if there is anything in the next bedroom?
She made her way across the landing and into what was obviously a child’s bedroom. A small bed with a blue counterpain stood opposite the door, and on it was a fluffy rabbit with a blue bow around its neck. On a chest of drawers Goldie noticed a toy train. Blue curtains hung at the window, tied back with a blue cord.
Goldie yawned. The warmth and the soup filling her stomach made her sleepy.
What a lovely rabbit. She picked it up and cuddled it. It was soft and seemed to encourage more cuddling, so she sat on the bed and leaned back. Slowly her eyes closed.
“The door is not closed,” Mr Beare frowned as he mounted the steps. He turned to his wife. “How come you didn’t close it behind you. I know you were in a hurry, but it is not like you to be so careless.”
His wife followed him into the house, pulling the hatpin from her hat and removing it. She hung it on a hatstand by the door. “Jane was behind me, Albert. She must not have pulled it closed properly. She went to the top of the stairs to the basement and called the maid.
Jane curtsied as she reached the top of the stairs. “What did you want, Mistress?”
“When you came out of the door to go to church, did you close it properly behind you?”
“Oh, Mistress, I really don’t know. I was rushing, see. I’m sorry if I left it.”
Mr Beare hung his cloak and hat on the stand. “You should be careful, Jane. There are all kinds of undesirables around these days. If someone had noticed, they would have been able to walk right in and help themselves.”
Tears trickled down Jane’s face. “I’m sorry, sir.” She curtsied again. “It won’t happen again. I’ll be extra careful in future.”
Mrs Beare placed a hand on her husband’s arm. “It’s partly my fault, Albert. I told Jane to come through the front door instead of the basement. We were late, and it would have taken her a few more minutes to go down to the kitchen and use the servant’s door.”
Mr Beare nodded and smiled at Jane. “Well, let’s forget it, shall we? Go and get changed into your work clothes.”
Harold Beare, Mr and Mrs Beare’s eight year old son came out of the sitting room.
“Mamma, someone has opened one of the sweetmeat bags.”
His parents rushed in and Harold pointed to the open bag on the roof of the Nativity scene.
Mr Beare picked it up. “Only one eaten, it seems.”
A scream came from the kitchen, and the sound of running feet came from the stairs.
“Oh, sir, I’m sorry. So sorry. Someone’s been in the house. They took a bite from a mince pie.” Jane held out a mince pie with a clear bite out of it. “I’m sorry for leaving the door open. Please don’t dismiss me.”
“No one is dismissing anyone,” Mrs Beare said. “So far nothing has been taken or damaged except one sweetmeat and one bite of a mince pie. Go back to the kitchen and see if anything else has happened.”
“We’d better be certain nothing else has been taken, Grace” Mr Beare said. “First let us see if anything has been taken from down here, then we can go upstairs and check.”
It was Harold who noticed the missing spoon in the dining room.
“That’s odd. They only took one small spoon. Look at all the other silver they could have taken.” Mrs Beare drew her brows together.
As they pondered this, Jane came rushing back. She panted before she managed to speak. “They’ve drunk the soup, Ma’am. I went to heat it up, and there was only a little bit left.”
“Let’s inspect upstairs,” Mr Beare said, striding to the staircase. “Jane, go back to the kitchen and help Mrs White finish the preparations for the meal.”
Jane curtsied and left.
The family ascended the stairs. Mr and Mrs Beare went into their bedroom and Harold went into his.
While Mrs Beare was inspecting her jewellery box, Harold ran into their room. “Mamma, there is a girl asleep on my bed.”
Mrs Beare straightened. “A girl?”
Harold nodded. “Yes. And she’s got Jacob.”
All three went to Harold’s room. Peering through the open door, they saw Goldie fast asleep and hugging Harold’s rabbit.
Mrs Beare’s eyes softened. “But she’s so little. Is she the burglar?”
“It would seem so, my dear. She’s obviously a beggar or a vagrant. We need to notify the police.”
The little girl woke, looked at the three people in the room and leaped to her feet, throwing the rabbit to the floor.
Harold dived for his toy, shouting “Jacob!”
The girl ran for the door and tried to duck under Mr Beare’s arm, but he was too quick and managed to grab her. He wrapped both arms around her, and as he did so, she screamed again.
“It hurts. Let me go! It hurts.” She aimed a kick at Mr Beare’s shin.
“Don’t hold her so tightly, Albert.” Mrs Bear protested.
“I’m not. It shouldn’t hurt her.”
The girl was crying now. “Please, don’t get the police. I’ll give back what I took. Just give me some money. Only a little money, or Mr Smith will beat me again.”
Mrs Beare took the child’s hand and prized her away from her husband. “But it does hurt her.” She knelt beside the weeping child. “Where does it hurt? Did Mr Smith hurt you?”
The child nodded and sniffed, rubbing her hand over her nose, spreading snot across her face.
Mrs Beare took out a handkerchief and wiped it away. “Show me where he hurt you.”
The child turned around. “My back. He hurt my back.”
Gently, Mrs Beare pulled the ragged dress away from the child’s shoulders. She drew a quick breath. There, across the child’s back were three long welts. The remains of blood traced their path.
She turned to her husband. “This child has been brutally beaten until she bled.” She stood her fists opening and closing. “We cannot allow her to return to such a man.”
“You’re correct, dear. I’ll contact the man in charge of the orphanage. They’lll take her if I ask him. I have influence.”
Mrs Beare looked at the child, who had cowered away at the mention of the orphanage. She frowned. “What is it, child? Surely the orphanage is better than your Mr Smith?”
“Mamma said it was a bad place. When I was bad, she said she would send me there.”
Mrs Beare put her head on one side. “So you have a mother?”
“No. She died. Annie found me and took me to Mr Smith. She said I would be one of her girls when I am old enough.”
Mr Beare strode into the room. “That settles it. She must go to the orphanage. We cannot allow her to become a fallen woman.”
His wife sat on the bed with an arm around the little girl. She turned to her. “What’s your name?”
“Mr Smith calls me Goldie.”
“But what did your mother call you? Can you remember?”
Mrs Beare had to lean forward to hear the whisper.
“Well, Emily, tell me what you did for Mr Smith.”
“I am one of his beggars. He said because I am pretty, the punters will feel sorry for me and give me more.”
“Emily, I will not let you go to either Mr Smith, or the orphanage. I have an idea, but I need to talk to my husband about it.” She stood. “Stay here while we go and think. Harold, come along with us. Bring a toy to play with, but leave Jacob with Emily.”
Mrs Beare frowned. “Don’t argue, Harold. Do as you are told.”
He handed his rabbit to Emily with a sullen look, and followed his parents. “What if she runs away with him?”
“We will be outside the room. She will not be able to leave without us seeing her. Go and take your train into the sitting room until we call you.”
Mr Beare stood, head cocked to one side. “What is it, Grace? What’s going on in that head of yours?” He laughed. “I can’t see what alternative there is to the orphanage.”
“Oh, but there is, Albert. You know how I…we…wanted more children, but none came after Harold? Remember our prayers, asking God to help us? We thought that He had decided we should have no more children.”
Mr Beare nodded.
“Well, I think He has answered our prayers after all.”
“You mean… .” He looked at the bedroom door.
His wife nodded, a smile covering her face. “Yes. Emily. I think that God has sent her to us, both in answer to our prayers and to help her, too. I think we should adopt her.”
Mr Beare frowned and shook his head. “I’m not sure, Grace. Adopting a street child? She’s a thief. She entered our house and took things.” He gazed at his wife.
“She took an opportunity that presented itself. She only did it from fear of this Mr Smith. She’s a beggar, not a thief.”
“It’s a big risk, Grace. Suppose Mr Smith still has some influence over her?”
Mrs Beare sighed. “If she’s living here, with us I do not see how Mr Smith, whoever he is, can get to her.” She held onto her husband’s arm and gazed into his eyes. “Please, Albert. You know how I long for another child, especially a little girl. And here God has provided us with one. Are you going to reject God’s gift?” She opened her eyes wide and smiled at him through her eyelashes.
“You know I can’t deny you, especially when you look at me like that.” He bent and kissed her. “I won’t reject God’s gift, either.”
If it had not been unladylike, Mrs Beare would have jumped up and down.
“You realise we’lll have a difficult job getting her civilised?”
She grinned. “Yes, but I like a challenge.”
On entering the room, Emily was chatting to Jacob the rabbit. She stopped and looked at Mrs Beare with anxiety in her eyes.
Mrs Beare sat next to the little girl. “How would you like to live here with us, Emily?”
Emily frowned. “You want me to be a maid here?”
“No, no. I…we want you to be our little girl. Our daughter. We want to adopt you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will live here with us. We will give you clothes and food. You will go to school. You will have toys. You will have everything our son, Harold has. He will be your brother.”
“Not go back to Mr Smith?”
“And have a rabbit to cuddle, like Jacob?”
“Yes. And other toys, too.”
Mr Beare entered, looking severe. “You’ll have to be good, though. No more stealing.”
Emily put her hand in her pocket and drew out the two pieces of jewellery she had taken from Mrs Beare’s jewellery box.
She held them towards Mrs Beare. “Sorry for taking these. I was frightened Mr Smith would beat me if I had nothing to give him.”
“You will call me ‘mother’, or mamma, if you prefer, and Mr Beare you will call ‘father’ or ‘papa’. But first we must get you clean and see to those wounds.”
Mrs Beare called Jane and told her to prepare a bath. When the hot water had been poured into the metal bath set before the fire, Mrs Beare washed Emily’s hair and gently sponged her back. Her clothes she gave to Jane with instructions to wash them, and to dry them as quickly as possible before the range. She then plastered a salve on the raw switch marks.
“What are we going to dress you in? You can’t walk around naked. It is indecent.” Mrs Beare thought for a minute. “Wait here, Emily, I won’t be long.” She left the room and sought her husband.
As she crossed the hallway, Jane rushed up the stairs.
“Ma’am, Mrs White says the dinner is ready, and will be spoiling.”
“Oh, Jane, tell Mrs White I’m sorry. We shouldn’t be too much longer. Try to keep it hot, please.”
Jane dropped a curtsey and went back down the stairs.
Mrs Beare entered the dining room. “Albert, we can’t have Christmas dinner with Emily with no clothes. The vicar has a little girl about the same size as Emily. I’m sure his wife will not mind lending us an old dress of hers.”
Mr Beare rose and tapped his pipe on the side of the fireplace, where a fire blazed. “And you want me to go and ask.”
“Yes, please. She can’t put her old clothes back. Not only are they ragged, but they were filthy, so I had Jane wash them.”
“And I suppose I’ll have to ask for some underwear, too. All right. I’ll go straight away.”
Mrs Beare reached up and kissed him on the cheek, then returned to the sitting room and Emily.
Goldie could not believe what was happening. This must be a dream, and soon she would wake to hunger and cold, not to mention fear of Mr Smith.
She sat on a small stool before the fire. Warmth. Lovely warmth. Even with no clothes on, she felt warm. Warmer than she had ever remembered.
This was a beautiful house. She had never been inside a house like this. It was clean, with furniture that was not broken or torn. Thick curtains that would keep out the cold. Clutching Jacob Rabbit to her naked chest, she stood and wandered to feel them. Soft. Almost as soft as Jacob.
“Is this real?” she whispered to the rabbit.
The door opened and Mrs Beare came in.
Mamma, she said I was to call her.
“I’ve borrowed these clothes from the vicar’s wife. She has a little girl about your age. Come and let me help you to dress.”
Goldie crossed to where her new mother stood holding a pair of bloomers. She stepped into the woollen garments.
“They’ll keep you warm, Emily. You’ll have cotton ones in the summer. Now this petticoat and silk stockings.”
I’m Emily again. I have my proper name again.
Mamma dressed her in what looked like the most expensive clothes. She had always worn clothes passed on to the poor by richer folk. They had been worn out in places, and the fabric thin.
Mamma held up a white dress. “Arms up,” she said.
When Emily complied, she dropped the dress over the child’s head. “Now turn around so I can do up the buttons.”
When the buttons were fastened, Mamma tied a blue ribbon around her waist.
The dress was not as long as Mamma’s. It came halfway down her calves. A hint of the frill around the legs of her bloomers peeped from below.
Mamma picked up a brush and teased out the tangles from her golden hair. “I can see why they called you Goldie. And you have a soft natural curl to your hair. It will be easy to fashion.” She held Emily at arm’s length. “You are exquisite. Now let us go and eat dinner before Mrs White has a fit.”
They left the sitting room and entered the dining room.
Mr Beare’s eyes opened wide. “I can’t believe this is the same little girl that was asleep in Harold’s room. She’s beautiful.”
Emily smiles and cast her eyes down.
Jane had set a fourth place, and when all four were seated, Mrs White entered carrying a platter on which sat a large goose. She was followed by Jane with a tray of dishes. The pair placed their burdens on the table.
“I’m sorry about the soup, Ma’am,” Mrs White said. “There was not enough to feed you all.” She glared at Emily.
“That is all right, Mrs White. It wasn’t your fault,” Mrs Beare replied.
Emily squirmed in her seat and kept her eyes down. It was her fault there was not enough soup.”
Mr Beare, Papa, carved the goose and served everyone.
There were potatoes, and a sauce made from some kind of green fruit. Mamma said they were gooseberries, so called because they were served with goose. Another dish had sprouts, and yet another had carrots.
After eating all these delicious foods, Emily had never felt so full in her life. She thought of the thin gruel she had eaten at Mr Smith’s, and grimaced.
Mrs White returned after Jane had cleared the remnants and dirty crockery. She was carrying a plum pudding.
When she had placed it carefully on the table, Mrs Beare served each of them with some. “Now, be careful. You may be lucky and find the coin.” She laughed. “Do not swallow it!”
Emily’s eyes widened. A coin in the pudding? She began eating slowly, partly for fear of swallowing a valuable coin, and partly because, really, she was quite full.
Her teeth struck something hard. She reached into her mouth and pulled out a silver threepenny piece. “I’ve found it. The threepenny bit.”
Her new Mamma and Papa smiled. “Then it’s yours,” said Papa. “You can spend it or save it.’
“Mine, Papa? Really mine? I’ve never had anything that was really mine.”
Harold looked at her, and took a deep breath. “It’s Christmas, Mamma. We had our presents, but Emily hasn’t had anything.”
Emily grinned. “Yes, I have. I have a new home and family. That’s the best Christmas present ever.” She bounced up and down on her chair.
“But I want to give you something.” He pulled Jacob Rabbit from under the table. “You are now my little sister. You love Jacob, and so I’ll give him to you.”
His parents smiled in pride at the sacrifice their son made. They knew how he loved his rabbit.
After eating, the family repaired to the sitting room, Emily clutching Jacob Rabbit to her chest. Mamma sat at the piano and played Christmas carols, to which they all joined in singing. After a while, Papa got out the dominoes and they played until Emily ‘s eyes began to close.
Jane had made up a bed for her in her very own room. As she lay, her eyes closing, she believed this was the best day ever.
Mr Smith stomped around the sparse loft room. “What do you mean, no one has seen her? She can’t have just disappeared.”
Jack spoke quietly. “Perhaps she ran away after you beat her.”
“Then she’lll be hiding somewhere. All of you will go out and search. Look in every corner, every empty house, warehouses; everywhere you can think of.”
The children left and searched to no avail.
A few weeks later, Jack went up to Mr Smith, cowering. “I saw Goldie.”
Mr Smith grabbed the boy. “Where? Why didn’t you bring her back?”
“Couldn’t. She were with a well-to-do lady. Dressed nice, she were. Lady was holding her hand, like she were her mother or summat.”
Mr Smith sank into his chair. “Couldn’t be her. A girl what looks like her. That’s who you saw.”
Jack shook his head. “Was her all right. Saw me, she did. Shook her head at me. Rekernised me for sure.”
“Well, we have searched for her for weeks now. We need to get back to business. There’s no money coming in while you are all out searching. If that were Goldie you saw, she’s lost to us.”