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lived to look back on my days with the strolling players as the happiest days of my life!
'I was ten years old when the first serious misfortune that I can remember fell upon me. My mother died, worn out in the prime of her life. And not long afterwards the strolling company, brought to the end of its resources by a succession of bad seasons, was broken up.
'I was left on the world, a nameless, penniless outcast, with one fatal inheritance—God knows I can speak of it without vanity, after what I have gone through ;—the inheritance of my mother's beauty.
'My only friends were the poor starved-out players. Two of them (husband and wife) obtained engagements in another company, and I was included in the bargain. The new manager by whom I was employed was a drunkard and a brute. One night, I made a trifling mistake in the course of the performances—and I was savagely beaten for it. Perhaps I had inherited some of my father's spirit—without, I hope, also inheriting my father's pitiless nature. However that may be, I resolved (no matter what became of me) never again to serve the man who had beaten me. I unlocked the door of our miserable lodging at daybreak the next morning; and, at ten years old, with my little bundle in my hand, I faced the world alone.
'My mother had confided to me, in her last moments, my father's name, and the address of his house in London. "He may feel some compassion for you" (she said) "though he feels none for me: try him." I had a few shillings, the last pitiful remains of my wages, in my pocket, and I was not far from London. But I never went near my father: child as I was, I would have starved and died rather than go to him. I had loved my mother dearly; and I hated the man who had turned his back on her when she lay on her deathbed. It made no difference to Me that he happened to be my father.
'Does this confession revolt you? You look at me, Mr. Holmcroft, as if it did.
'Think a little, sir. Does what I have just said condemn me as a heartless creature, even in my earliest years? What is a father to a child, when the child has never sat on his knee and never had a kiss or a present from him? If we had met in the street, we should not have known each other. Perhaps, in afterdays, when I was starving in London, I may have begged of my father without knowing it, and he may have thrown his daughter a penny without knowing it either! What is there sacred in the relations between father and child, when they are such relations as these? Even the flowers of the field cannot grow without light and air to help them. How is a child's love to grow, with nothing to help it?
'My small savings would have been soon exhausted, even if I had been old enough and strong enough to protect them myself. As tilings were, my few shillings were taken from me by gipsies. I had no reason to complain. They gave me food and the shelter of their tents; and they made me of use to them in various ways. After awhile, hard times came to the gipsies, as they had come to the strolling players. Some of them were imprisoned, the rest were dispersed. It was the season for hop-gathering at the time. I got employment among the hop-pickers next; and that done, I went to London with my new friends.
'I have no wish to weary and pain you by dwelling on this part of my childhood in detail. It will be enough if I tell you that I ended in begging, under the pretence of selling matches in the street. My mother's legacy got me many a sixpence which my matches would never have charmed out of the pockets of strangers if I had been an ugly child. My face, which was destined to be my greatest misfortune in after years, was my best friend in those days.
'Is there anything, Mr. Holmcroft, in the life I am now trying to describe which reminds you of a day when we were out walking together, not long since?
'I surprised and offended you, I remember; and it was not possible for me to explain my conduct at the time. Do you recollect the little wandering girl, with the miserable faded nosegay in her hand, who ran after us and begged for a halfpenny? I shocked you by bursting out crying when the child asked us to buy her a bit of bread. Now you know why I was so sorry for her. Now you know why I offended you the next day, by breaking an engagement with your mother, trying (vainly) to trace that child to her home. After what I have confessed, you will admit that my poor little sister in adversity had the first claim on me.
'Let me go on, I am sorry if I have distressed you. Let me go on.
'The forlorn wanderers of the streets have (as I found it) one way, always open to them, of presenting their sufferings to the notice of their rich and charitable fellow-creatures. They have only to break the law— and they make a public appearance in a court of justice. If the circumstances connected with their offence are of an interesting kind, they gain a second advantage; they are advertised all over England by a report in the newspapers.
'Yes; even J have my knowledge of the law. I know that it completely overlooked me so long as I respected it; but on two different occasions it became my best friend when I set it at defiance. My first fortunate offence was committed when I was just twelve years old.
'It was evening time. I was half dead with starvation; the rain was falling; the night was coming on. I begged—openly, loudly, as only a hungry child can beg. An old lady in a carriage at a shop-door complained of my importunity. The policeman did his duty. The law gave me a supper and a shelter at the station-house that night. I appeared at the policecourt, and, questioned by the magistrate, I told my story truly. It was the everyday story of thousands of children like me; but it had one element of interest in it. I confessed to having had a father (he was then dead) who had been a man of rank; and I owned (just as openly as I owned everything else), that I had never applied to him for help, in resentment of his treatment of my mother. This incident was new, I suppose: it led to the appearance of my "case" in the newspapers. The reporters further served my interests by describing me as "pretty and interesting." Subscriptions were sent to the court. A benevolent married couple, in a respectable sphere of life, visited the workhouse to see me. I produced a favourable impression on them— especially on the wife. I was literally friendless—I had no unwelcome relatives to follow me and claim me. The wife was childless; the husband was a good-natured man. It ended in their taking me away with them to try me in service.
'I have always felt the aspiration, no matter how low I may have fallen, to struggle upwards to a position above me; to rise, in spite of fortune, superior to my lot in life. Perhaps some of my father's pride may be at the root of this restless feeling in me. It seems to be a part of my nature. It brought me into this house, and it will go with me out of this house. Is it my curse, or my blessing? I am not able to decide.
'On the first night when I slept in my new home, I said to myself: "They have taken me to be their servant; I will be something more than that; they shall end in taking me for their child." Before I had been a week in the house I was my mistress's favourite companion, while my master was at his place of business. She was a highly-accomplished woman; greatly her husband's superior in cultivation, and, unfortunately for herself, also his superior in years. The love was all on her side. Excepting certain occasions on which he roused her jealousy, they lived together on sufficiently friendly terms. She was one of the many wives who resign themselves to be disappointed in their