We left the boy, with his head on one side and his arms on the gate, fondling and sucking the spikes, and went back to Lincoln's Inn, where Mr. Skimpole, who had not cared to remain nearer Coavinses, awaited us. Then we all went to Bell Yard, a narrow alley at a very short distance. We soon found the chandler's shop. In it was a good-natured-looking old woman with a dropsy, or an asthma, or perhaps both.
"Neckett's children?" said she in reply to my inquiry. "Yes, Surely, miss. Three pair, if you please. Door right opposite the stairs." And she handed me the key across the counter.
I glanced at the key and glanced at her, but she took it for granted that I knew what to do with it. As it could only be intended for the children's door, I came out without asking any more questions and led the way up the dark stairs. We went as quietly as we could, but four of us made some noise on the aged boards, and when we came to the second story we found we had disturbed a man who was standing there looking out of his room.
"Is it Gridley that's wanted?" he said, fixing his eyes on me with an angry stare.
"No, sir," said I; "I am going higher up."
He looked at Ada, and at Mr. Jarndyce, and at Mr. Skimpole, fixing the same angry stare on each in succession as they passed and followed me. Mr. Jarndyce gave him good day. "Good day!" he said abruptly and fiercely. He was a tall, sallow man with a careworn head on which but little hair remained, a deeply lined face, and prominent eyes. He had a combative look and a chafing, irritable manner which, associated with his figure — still large and powerful, though evidently in its decline — rather alarmed me. He had a pen in his hand, and in the glimpse I caught of his room in passing, I saw that it was covered with a litter of papers.
Leaving him standing there, we went up to the top room. 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 on hearing this 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, standing still to gaze at us.
"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 limp bonnet of 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 taking the nankeen bonnet much too near the bedstead by trying to gaze at us at the same time.
We were looking at one another and at these two children when 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 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 neighbourhood and had made all the haste she could. 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, and looking quietly at us.
"Oh, here's Charley!" said the boy.
The child he was nursing stretched forth 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 we put a chair for the little creature and got her to sit down with her load, the boy keeping close to her, holding to her apron, "that this child works for the rest? Look at this! For God's sake, look at this!"
It was a thing to look at. The three children close together, and two of them relying solely on the third, and the third so young and yet with an air of age and steadiness that sat so strangely on the childish figure.
"Charley, Charley!" said my guardian. "How old are you?"
"Over thirteen, sir," replied the child.
"Oh! What a great age," said my guardian. "What a great age, Charley!"
I cannot describe the tenderness with which he spoke to her, half playfully yet all the more compassionately and mournfully.
"And do you live alone here with these babies, Charley?" said my guardian.
"Yes, sir," returned the child, looking up into his face with perfect confidence, "since father died."
"And how do you live, Charley? Oh! Charley," said my guardian, turning his face away for a moment, "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."
"And when did mother die? Poor 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," 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 an'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 court, 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?"