When I, Esther Summerson, was taken from the school where the early years of my childhood had been spent; having no home or parents, as had the other girls in the school, my guardian, Mr. Jarndyce, gave me a home with him, where I was companion to his young and lovely ward, Ada Clare. I soon grew deeply attached to Ada, the dearest girl in the world; to my guardian, the kindest and most thoughtful of men; and to Bleak House, my happy home.
One day, upon hearing of the death of a poor man whom we had known, and learning that he had left three motherless children in great poverty, my guardian and I set out to discover for ourselves the extent of their need. We were directed to a chandler’s shop in Bell Yard, a narrow, dark alley, where we found an old woman, who replied to my inquiry for Neckett’s children: “Yes, surely, Miss. Three pair, if you please. Door right opposite the stairs.” And she handed me a key across the counter. As she seemed to take it for granted I knew what to do with the key, I inferred it must be intended for the children’s door, so without any more questions I led the way up a dark stair.
Reaching the top room designated, 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, 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.
“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 child he was nursing, “and Charley.”
“Where is Charley now?”
“Out a-washing,” said the boy, beginning to walk up and down again, and even as he spoke 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 a 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 neighborhood. 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. “O, here’s Charley!” said the boy.
The child he was nursing stretched forward 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 he put a chair for the little creature, and got her to sit down with her load, the boy holding to her apron, “that this child works for the rest?
“Charley, Charley!” he questioned. “How old are you?”
“Over thirteen, sir,” replied the child.
“O, what a great age!” said my guardian. “And do you live here alone with these babies, Charley?”