(excerpt from the book)
WAIFS AND STRAYS
“Children are a gift from the Lord; they are a reward from Him.” Psalms 127:3
In the shop it was not yet so dark but that old Oliver could see his way out with the shutters, which during the day occupied a place behind the door. He lifted the flap of the counter, and was about to go on with his usual business, when a small voice, trembling a little, and speaking from the floor at his very feet, caused him to pause suddenly.
“Please, rere’s a little girl here,” said the voice.
Oliver stooped down to bring his eyes nearer to the ground, until he could make out the indistinct outline of the figure of a child, seated on his shop floor, and closely hugging a dog in her arms. Her face looked small to him; it was pale, as if she had been crying quietly, and though he could not see them, a large tear stood on each of her cheeks.
“What little girl are you?” he asked, almost timidly.
“Rey called me Dolly,” answered the child.
“Haven’t you any other name?” inquired old Oliver
“Nosing else but Poppet,” she said; “rey call me Dolly sometimes, and Poppet sometimes. Ris is my little dog, Beppo.”
She introduced the dog by pushing its nose into his hand, and Beppo complacently wagged his tail and licked the old man’s withered fingers.
“What brings you here in my shop, my little woman?” asked Oliver.
“Mammy brought me,” she said, with a stifled sob; “she told me run in rere, Dolly, and stay till mammy comes back, and be a good girl always. Am I a good girl?”
“Yes, yes,” he answered, soothingly; “you’re a very good little girl, I’m sure; and mother ‘ill come back soon, very soon. Let us go to the door, and look for her.”
He took her little hand in his own; such a little hand it felt, that he could not help tightening his fingers fondly over it; and then they stood for a few minutes on the door-sill, while old Oliver looked anxiously up and down the alley. At the greengrocer’s next door there flared a bright jet of gas, and the light shone well into the deepening darkness. But there was no woman in sight, and the only person about was a ragged boy, barefoot and bareheaded with no clothing but a torn pair of trousers, very jagged about the ankles, and a jacket through which his thin shoulders displayed themselves. He was lolling in the lowest window-sill of the house opposite, and watched Oliver and the little girl looking about them with sundry signs of interest and amusement.
“She ain’t nowhere in sight,” he called across to them after a while, “nor won’t be, neither, I’ll bet you. You’re looking out for the little un’s mother, ain’t you, old master?”
“Yes,” answered Oliver; “do you know anything about her, my boy?”
“Nothink,” he said, with a laugh; “only she looked as if she were up to some move, and as I’d nothink particular on hand, I just followed her. She was somethink like my mother, as is dead, not fat or rosy, you know, with a bit of a bruise about her eye, as if somebody had been fighting with her. I thought there’d be a lark when she left the little ‘un in your shop, so I just stopped to see. She bolted as if the bobbies were after her.”
“How long ago?” asked Oliver, anxiously.
“The clocks had just gone eight,” he answered; “I’ve been watching for you ever since.”
“Why! that’s a full hour ago,” said the old man, looking wistfully down the alley; “it’s time she was come back again for her little girl.”
But there was no symptom of anybody coming to claim the little girl, who stood very quietly at his side, one hand holding the dog fast by his ear, and the other still lying in Oliver’s grasp. The boy hopped on one foot across the narrow alley, and looked up with bright, eager eyes into the old man’s face.
“I say,” he said, earnestly, “don’t you go to give her up to the p’lice. They’d take her to the house, and that’s worse than the jail. Bless yer! they’d never take up a little thing like that to jail for a wagrant. You just give her to me, and I’ll take care of her. It ‘ud be easy enough to find victuals for such a pretty little thing as her. You give her up to me, I say.”
“What’s your name?” asked Oliver, clasping the little hand tighter, “and where do you come from?”
“From nowhere particular,” answered the boy; “and my name’s Antony; Tony, for short. I used to have another name; mother told it me afore she died, but it’s gone clean out o’ my head. Tony I am, anyhow, and you can call me by it, if you choose.”
“How old are you, Tony?” inquired Oliver, still lingering on the threshold, and looking up and down with his dim eyes.
“Bless yer! I don’t know,” replied Tony; “I weren’t much bigger nor her when mother died, and I’ve found myself ever since. I never had any father.”
“Found yourself!” repeated the old man, absently.
“Ah, it’s not bad in the summer,” said Tony, more earnestly than before: “and I could find for the little ‘un easy enough. I sleep anywhere, in Covent Garden sometimes, and the parks—anywhere as the p’lice ‘ill let me alone. You won’t go to give her up to them p’lice, will you now, and she so pretty?”
He spoke in a beseeching tone, and old Oliver looked down upon him through his spectacles, with a closer survey than he had given to him before. The boy’s face was pale and meager, with an unboyish sharpness about it, though he did not seem more than nine or ten years old. His glittering eyes were filled with tears, and his colourless lips quivered. He wiped away the tears roughly upon the ragged sleeve of his jacket.
“I never were such a baby before,” said Tony, “only she is such a nice little thing, and such a tiny little ‘un. You’ll keep her, master, won’t you? or give her up to me?”
“Ay, ay! I’ll take care of her,” answered Oliver, “till her mother comes back for her. She’ll come pretty soon, I know. But she wants her supper now, doesn’t she?”
He stooped down to bring his face nearer to the child’s, and she raised her hand to it, and stroked his cheek with her warm, soft fingers.
“Beppo wants his supper, too,” she said, in a clear, shrill, little voice, which penetrated easily through old Oliver’s deafened hearing.
“And Beppo shall have some supper as well as the little woman,” he answered. “I’ll put the shutters up now, and leave the door ajar, and the gas lit for mother to see when she comes back; and if mother shouldn’t come back to night, the little woman will sleep in my bed, won’t she?”
“Dolly’s to be a good girl till mammy comes back,” said the child, plaintively, and holding harder by Beppo’s ear.
“Let me put the shutters up, master,” cried Tony, eagerly; “I won’t charge you nothink, and I’ll just look round in the morning to see how you’re getting along. She is such a very little thing.”
The shutters were put up briskly, and then Tony took a long, farewell gaze of the old man and the little child, but he could not offer to touch either of them. He glanced at his hands, and Oliver did the same; but they both shook their heads.
“I’ll have a wash in the morning afore I come,” he said, nodding resolutely; “good-bye, guv’ner; goodbye, little ‘un.”
Old Oliver went in, leaving his door ajar, and his gas lit, as he had said. He fed the hungry child with bread and butter, and used up his half-pennyworth of milk, which he bought for himself every evening. Then he lifted her on to his knee, with Beppo in her arms, and sat for a long while waiting. The little head nodded, and Dolly sat up, unsteadily striving hard to keep awake; but at last she let Beppo drop to the floor, while she herself fell upon the old man’s breast, and lay there without moving. It chimed eleven o’clock at last, and Oliver knew it was of no use to watch any longer.
He managed to undress his little charge with gentle, though trembling hands, and then he laid her down on his bed, putting his only pillow against the wall to make a soft nest for the tender and sleepy child. She roused herself for a minute, and stared about her, gazing steadily, with large, tearful eyes, into his face. Then as he sat down on the bedstead beside her, to comfort her as well as he could, she lifted herself up, and knelt down, with her folded hands laid against his shoulder.
“Dolly vewy seepy,” she lisped, “but must say her prayers always.”
“What are your prayers, my dear?” he asked.
“On’y God bless gan-pa, and father, and mammy, and poor Beppo, and make me a good girl,” murmured the drowsy voice, as Dolly closed her eyes again, and fell off into a deep sleep the next moment.