By the magistrate’s whiskers, my mother had given me the opportunity to visit a most mysterious neighbor—our newest neighbor. With everyone at my household away for the day, I strolled up to Mrs. Kilrush’s row house door late one spring afternoon of 1843 and rapped on it several times.
The woman, though young, held a secret that all girls my age wanted to know. Now was my chance to pursue it under the guise of a more innocent pretense.
When the door opened, my mouth did as well, but no sound uttered forth.
“Ah, you’re Mrs. Wimpole’s daughter from a few doors down.”
I smiled. “Top of the morning to you.”
“Oh, you know that Irish expression, do you now? Well, I’ll give you the answer then … and the rest of the day to you.”
“I would love to see Ireland some day.”
Mrs. Kilrush flipped her hand. “Not these days. There’re terrible times afoot and worse to come. You mark me words.”
Having relocated from their homeland three weeks since, Mrs. Kilrush dubbed the poor-ridden Hunter Street neighborhood a far better place to live than any she had known.
“My mother said you requested some assistance. May I?”
“Come inside a moment, please.” She stepped aside, opened the door wider, and I strode into a house as miniscule as my own—one main room to serve as living room, kitchen, and dining room—and three tiny bedrooms.
Tables stood everywhere laden with all sorts of sewing equipment and cloth. She earned extra money by making dresses. Her husband could not obtain employment when first they arrived, because many Londoners despised the Irish. He took to self-employment as a tosher and combed the London sewers for lost treasures—like gold, silver, and copper coins.
Mrs. Kilrush handed me an opened letter. “I’m going to admit something that’s pretty darn hard to admit, but the truth is … I’m desperate for help.”
I batted my eyes. “Of course. Anything, Mrs. Kilrush.”
“Neither me husband nor I can read much. I’ve just received this letter from a neighbor where we used to live. Your mother said that you and your father were the best readers in the neighborhood. Can you be a dear, and tell me what it says?”
I reached inside my apron pocket, removed my rimless, round-eyed spectacles, and slipped them on. I held the paper to within a few inches of my nose.
“How old are you, Charlotte?”
I eased the paper away from my face. “Sixteen.”
“And you’re wearing spectacles?”
I laughed and removed them. “An accident. I spilled lye in my eyes four years since.”
She laid a hand on my cheek. “You poor darling. Ruining your eyes at the tender age of twelve.”
“I can still see at a distance.” I slipped on the spectacles and inched the letter closer. “It says here a Mr. Fitzsimmons removed your parents from their house.”
“Oh my.” Mrs. Kilrush raised a fist and bit it. “It’s happening.”
“What is happening?”
“The money-grabbing landlords are throwing the tenants out, and all because times are tough. People may starve for the lack of a decent potato crop, and they come along to make matters worse.”
Pulling off the spectacles, I handed the letter back to her. “At any rate, the neighbor goes on to say that your parents are all right. They moved in with your sister Michaela.”
“Good sweet-hearted Michaela. I should have known she’d have helped Mama. Thank you, Charlotte.”
I opened my mouth to ask one of my burning questions but nothing issued forth.
Mrs. Kilrush snatched a strip of yellow muslin from one of the tables and handed it to me. “Your mother said she could use a little yellow in something she was sewing.”
The muslin dangled from her outstretched hand, but that was not the favor I sought. I wanted the knowledge she held in her head, the knowledge that would set me free, put me at ease, and stop the ground from shaking beneath me. I yanked my hand away. “I have no money to pay you at the moment.”
She thrust it into my hands and closed hers over them. “It’s all right, Charlotte. I’m giving it to her.”
I shook my head. “Oh no. She will gladly pay you for it.”
She squeezed my hands harder. “Take it. It’s for reading me the letter. It’s comforting to know me mother and father are all right.”
I offered her my sweetest smile and drew the muslin closer. “Thank you, Mrs. Kilrush. She will be grateful, I am sure.” However, that would not keep me from asking her.
Withdrawing her hands, she stared at me for the longest time. I attempted to read her face, but could not decipher a clue.
“What is it, Mrs. Kilrush? You look so content.”
“I was wondering about you, Charlotte. You’re quite an amazing girl, you know. Every time I see you, you’re out running an errand for someone else.”
I could not keep a smile from stretching my face and glanced at my feet. “Oh, I do not mind.”
“Are you a writer, too?”
I giggled. “I know my family is known as the literary Wimpoles of Hunter Street, but that is my father’s doing. He wants at least one of his sons to become a writer, and has gone so far as to name all my younger brothers after famous authors. Fenimore is named for James Fenimore Cooper, John for the Scottish novelist John Lockhart, and Shelley for the great poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He makes them write stories, and they come to me for assistance; but my father would never tolerate a daughter for a writer, as he despises women authors.”
“What of Shelley’s wife?”
“Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley?”
“Didn’t she write something?”
“The novels Frankenstein and The Last Man. I can understand a woman can write as well as a man, but unfortunately, my father cannot fathom it. I always thought it would serve him right if I turned out to be a namesake for some famous ‘Charlotte’ writer yet to be.”
“Who are you named after, then?”
“My father’s mother, Grandmother Charlotte Wimpole.”
She touched my nose and let loose a giggle. “Well, I’d say you’re smart enough to be a writer.”
I needed to stop procrastinating and ask her. She seemed friendly enough; and being so young, she would very likely tell me what I wanted to know.
I bowed my head and swung my arms as my face flushed with increased temperature. “Thank you for saying so, but I must give my father all the credit; for it was he who insisted on my enrollment in the Soho Church of England’s School for the Poor.”
“You went to school now, did you? Amongst the poor, I thought only boys attended school in England.”
I stretched the muslin pretending to look it over and realized that we had digressed. The timid thought popped into my mind that maybe asking her was a big mistake, and that I should forget the whole matter. “My father talked the school into it. He can be very persuasive when he wants a thing badly enough. He thinks a better education will attract a better class of suitor for my future marriage.”
“He’s always in control of your life, then … and you find it a bit unsettling.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Just so.”
“And though your three brothers are all younger, you tend to do their bidding with the full support of your father.”
How did she know me so well? I nodded. “Have you a Gypsy’s crystal ball?”
“He wants you to get married then and have children?”
“Has your father had that little talk with you about coming out?”
“Not yet, but I know it will happen soon enough. I am seventeen in June.”
“I can see in your eyes you want something more than marriage.”
How can she see it so well? “But in London, a young girl’s future is already planned, is it not? Is it not every woman’s dream to marry and have children?”
I realized the second the words flew from my mouth that I should not have taken the conversation in that direction. My eyes darted aside. “Pardon me, Mrs. Kilrush. Please forgive that remark.”
Mrs. Kilrush smiled. “It’s all right, Charlotte. I’ve settled it after six years of marriage.”
I hesitated, but knew the moment grew ripe for my intrusion into the world I so longed to know about. “Why do you not have children, Mrs. Kilrush?” My hand wanted to smack my brow, but I stopped it. It was not the question I wanted to know most. Why was I so afraid to ask it?
“Oh well, that’s a story, I can tell you. Fact is, we keep kissing and kissing, but nothing ever happens.”
“What does that mean? I thought you had to do more than kiss. Do not you and your husband ….” I had finally sprung the cat from its bag. Once out, I could pursue it.
She slipped an arm round me and started walking towards the front door. “I’ll not tell a fib. Yes, me husband and I surely do more than kiss. It’s God who’s not cooperating.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Kilrush. I do not mean to pry.”
“Oh, yes you do. I understand the curiosity of a sixteen-year-old girl.”
This is it. I may never have the opportunity again. I stopped and turned. “Perhaps you can tell me what it is like to lie with a man?”
She jerked her arm from round me and widened her eyes as a knock sounded. Turning her eyes off me, she sauntered towards the door. I followed. A twelve-year-old girl of a higher social station stood in the door frame bouncing up and down.
“What is it?” Mrs. Kilrush asked.
The girl rapidly shifted her weight from foot to foot. “Oh please! Where is Charlotte Wimpole? There’s a note posted on her door that she is here.”
I stepped out from behind the woman and looked at Mrs. Kilrush. “My father is at his clerk’s position, my mother is on errands, and my brothers are out earning extra money.” I looked at the girl. “What is the matter?”
She threw her hands to her face. “Come quick! It is your brother Shelley. He is in a bad way.”
Mrs. Kilrush and I stared into each other’s eyes. I broke it off and ran out the door.
My damp dislike for Shelley over our most recent feud evaporated as I followed the girl down the street. He had come to ask me to help analyze a story our father assigned him to write. When I criticized it, he lost his temper and told me he wished me struck and killed by a carriage.
Rushing onto the girl’s property and darting round the stand-alone, three story house, I heard Shelley’s cries bubbling up from a circular, stone well. It had been pouring hard just before my visit to Mrs. Kilrush, but now it only drizzled.
“Help, Charley, the water is rising, and you know I cannot swim. It will be over my chin in a few minutes.”
“Do not fret, Shelley,” I said, feigning calm. “I will have you out of there in minutes.” I turned to the girl and raised the concern in my voice several pitches. “Where is the bucket?”
She pointed down the well. “It came off and the top of the rope got stuck on that tiny ledge below. When Shelley came to deliver the doctor’s medicine for my ailing grandmother, I asked him to reach in and fetch it; but he fell taking the rope with him. Save him, please.”
“By the magistrate’s whiskers!” A sudden pressure almost forced my bladder to let go. I had never acted in such an emergency for another. What did this girl, or Shelley, expect from me—to perform a miracle just because I was their elder? “Girl, who is in your home?”
“Now? Only Grandmother and I.”
I smacked my forehead. “I ought to have known.” Staring again into the dim interior of the well, it seemed about thirty feet to the top of Shelley’s head. Straining my eyes, I focused on a little ledge about five feet down. The girl had not under-exaggerated its size when she described it as ‘tiny.’ It protruded from the wall no more than three inches and extended laterally about six feet.
Jolting my head up straight, I turned to her. “Help me off with my dress.”
“I must climb down.” I pulled off my shoes. “There is another ledge five feet under the first. There must be one every five feet. If I am to climb down, I must be able to see my feet. Now, help me off with my dress.”
The girl obeyed, and soon I hung from the top lip of the well wall with nothing on but chemise and drawers. Gazing down whilst holding onto the stone wall, I guided my bare toes to the ledge below and caught on; but as soon as I attempted to bend down to grab the ledge, my knees hit the wall and pushed me away from it. I forced myself to stand up tall again for fear of falling.
“Hurry, Charley, the water is rising. It is almost to my nose.”
My insides churned in a swirl of mixed emotions. “I am trying, Shelley. Just hold on.”
By swinging my right foot round whilst holding onto the top, I managed to turn to face outward; and when I stooped, my knees bent away from the wall. However, when my hands touched the ledge, I could not figure out how to lower my feet to the next ledge. To achieve that, I needed to turn round again, but my knees would not allow such a maneuver.
“Dash the bloody knees!” My mind racked itself for a solution as Shelley screamed up at me again. A part of my mind jolted me into believing in the hopelessness of the situation, and suggested I climb out of the well and save myself. My panic wanted me to cry out blindly for help like Shelley had, but enough reason remained for me to realize it would serve no useful purpose, as only a twelve-year-old girl would be privy to it. Only one person stood near on whom I could rely—me.
Reaching to my left, I located a crag in the wall and swung myself round grabbing onto it with both sets of fingertips. My feet slipped off the ledge, and I dangled facing the rock wall. Keeping hold of the crag with my right hand, I reached down and to the left locating the first ledge. I transferred my other hand, caught my falling weight, and dangled from the ledge facing the wall whilst searching for the ledge below with my toes.
Planting them and turning round much in the same manner as when I began, I bent as low as I could, found another crag to my left, and repeated the same sequence resulting in my standing on the third ledge.
My mind, relaxed over finding an easy way down, jolted into intense activity when Shelley screamed. I knew the water lever had reached his nose, and expedience necessitated me reaching him immediately. But how?
Hoping the ledges continued down the wall at the same five-foot increments, I jumped out into the dark abyss and seconds later my head plunged below the water. Thrusting off the bottom, I burst through the surface and gasped for air as I reached out for Shelley. He, being four years my junior, made me a few inches taller; and the difference enabled me to hold him above the surface and keep the water below my chin.
“Shelley, you d-d-did not tell me how c-c-cold this w-w-water was.”
“I am all right now, Charley,” he said, appearing to shake off his panic. “You have me out of the water. I will stop kicking.”
I waited for his feet to stop striking my shins. “Well,” I snapped after several more seconds, “then stop kicking!”
Stopping, he looked round, to the top of the well, and then back at me. “Now what?”
“Grab the wall and start climbing until you find the first ledge. It will only be a few inches out from the wall, but it will help you climb higher.”
“What do you mean you cannot? Just do it!”
“You must! The only other thing to do is stay here, watch me drown, and then drown yourself.” I thrust him as high up the wall as I could. “Now, climb!”
Shelley sucked in his breath, grabbed a handhold, and climbed. I clung to him even though his motion splashed water in my face helping to thrust the moldy well odor into my nostrils. Once in a while I had to snort to expel the horrific smell, but it dove back the next time I inhaled.
Soon Shelley reached a height giving me room to climb; and the moment arrived just in time, because the water already began invading my nostrils.
Ten minutes later Shelley tumbled over the top and pulled me over with him. We fell to the ground with the girl patting us on our backs and letting loose with joyous squeals.
I tried to rise, but Shelley pressed me into a bear hug. We were chest to chest, his crying face buried in my neck. A few seconds passed before I realized an internal, emotional battle raged within him. I fell limp to allow his “thank you” embraces and kisses.
I no longer cared about the awful way he had treated me over the past two months. My heart melted over him being alive.
“You know, Shelley, since England is a nation surrounded by water, I think the whole family should learn to swim. What say you?”
He nodded in the crook of my neck. “Charley, I am so glad you never stepped in front of a carriage.”
I conjured up a quick tear-filled chuckle, wrapped my arms round him like a mother bear whose cub had been lost for days, and squeezed him until he protested.
Sixteen-year-old Rosena Ivanya leaned with me against the mighty girth of the forlorn Stone Tree. Aptly named by us, it towered in the midst of the lonely granite ocean of lost souls in the nearby Wofford Foundling Hospital’s graveyard. The lone tree sat upon a small pedestal of land, not as though someone had built it up, but more as though the surrounding land had once been on an equal plain; and over the years the burdening weight of the grievous gravestones pushed the rest of the land down round it. Life above death; that is what we made of it.
It always darkened my humble spirit being amongst so much quieted misery, but somehow my best friend and I managed to keep the subject on the topic of life.
“One of Dora Drake’s married brothers,” Rosena said, “told her a different way a girl could get with child … and the success rate is one hundred percent.”
“Preposterous. Nothing is one hundred percent. Look how long our parents have been doing … whatever it is they do without producing children.”
Rosena jumped up and spun round, her face lit brighter than a lamppost. “The tongue in the ear.”
I shook my head. “What?”
“You, Charlotte, or I … can get with child if a man sticks his tongue in one of our ears.”
I strained my eyebrows to reach my hairline, and tilted my head down. “Well, that makes absolutely no sense at all. I do not see how it gets from here …” I pointed to my ear, “… to here.” I pointed to my abdomen.
“It is in the boy’s saliva.” Rosena slapped her hands together. “Look, look … the saliva goes down the ear canal and enters the brain. The brain triggers a chemical reaction in the womb, and voila … nine months later you have your baby.”
I could not keep from laughing. “That is nonsensical rubbish.”
“It is all scientific.” Rosena threw her head back whilst wearing an air of authority.
“What of kissing? It would mean every time mothers and fathers kissed … well … mine would have seventeen babies by now.”
Rosena grabbed my arms and shook them. “No … the woman’s saliva cancels out the man’s saliva. However, if he places the saliva in your ear … there is no female saliva to stop it.” She bounced one hand off the other. “Zow! It goes straight to the brain.”
“A woman can get with child by a man sticking his tongue in her ear,” I said. “I am not saying I accept it at all, but let us assume for the moment it is true. What of the normal way of getting with child? Have we ever figured that out?”
“No, but obviously it has something to do with the difference in anatomy. Why else would there be a difference?” Rosena stopped for a second as though she were afraid to continue. “Charlotte, you have three brothers. Did you ever see …?”
“See what makes them male?” I finished for her, relieving her of having to produce an acceptable synonym. “I was wondering when you would get round to asking me. Living in such a small house, it can hardly be helped … particularly when we were younger.”
“Dora Drake told me it was very like a worm.”
“It is. Although I have seen bigger worms.”
Rosena snapped her head up straight. “You have seen other boys? Men perhaps?”
“No.” I snickered. “I mean I have seen real worms bigger than my brothers’ … uh, worms.”
Our backs to the tree trunk, Rosena reached into the green carpet round us and plucked from it one blade of grass. “Whatever do you think they do with it?”
“Pass fluids, that much I know.”
“Do you think it has anything to do with making a baby?”
“It is their difference. I would think it must.”
Rosena stretched the blade of grass taut between her two thumbs. “But how?”
“I do not know. All I know is whatever Mother allows Father to do to her, she is quite fond of it.”
Making the blade sing with one blow, Rosena turned to me. “Mine as well.” She stared at the grass blade. “Charlotte, do you wonder about having children?”
I picked a blade of grass. “I do not think I want them just yet. I want to find out what life holds for me. There may be something else I do not know about, and, later in life, I may regret not finding it first.”
“You’re a wonderful storyteller, Charlotte. You entertain your brothers … and my sisters as well.”
I slipped the blade between my thumbs. “My brothers insist that I should be the writer, but I do not care to write.” I blew on the blade, it sang for a second, and then broke, catapulting the pitch into a much higher realm.
“Marriage is almost all there is for any woman, Charlotte. What else need there be?”
I let the grass blade fall. “Victoria is a Queen. And look at female author Jane Austen.”
Rosena giggled. “So, you want to be a book-writing monarch? Something every girl can aspire towards.”
“My point is, Miss Sardonic, there are things out there women can be, and I want to look round before settling for the ordinary.”
“I must confess, Charlotte, I have been thinking along the same line.”
I threw a hand up pointing to the sky. “Ah, ha!”
“Although I do not hold with your views of matrimony and see myself quite married, I have been thinking about postponing marriage in favor of studying to be a schoolmaster.”
I leaned back against the trunk. “Why, Rose, I think teaching is a splendid plan.”
She smiled. “I found in my position of being the eldest of five girls, that I oftentimes instruct them in either household matters, or in their schoolwork … and I discovered that I was rather partial to giving instructions … teaching as it were.”
“You are not going to tell me that you helped Margo draw all her wonderful pictures?”
“Of course not. My sister has a natural gift for it.”
I leaned forward and sat up. “You do know that all schoolmasters are men.”
“I know, but I thought I would give it a go all the same. And if failure should visit me, then I would be much better educated for my own children in the end.”
“You win either way.” I knelt. “It is truly a good plan, Rose.”
“Do you see how I have two plans: one in reserve for the other?”
“That is well thought out. You are one smart girl, Rose. Smarter than I.”
“You ought to do the same, Charlotte.”
“By the magistrate’s whiskers,” I snapped, “here it comes again. You want that I should call you Mother?”
“Really, Charlotte, whatever you decide your destiny to be, always have a plan of marriage at the ready. It is a girl’s refuge from life … her hope chest for happiness. Think of it as the last choice of security if you will; only you must consider it.”
I leaned forward in front of her. Laying my hands on her thigh, I attempted to sound sincere. “I have tried to see myself in that role, and perhaps if I found myself there, I may well do it superb justice. However, I cannot be sure of such a happy and successful outcome.”
She eased a hand up to the side of my face. “None of us ever do, Charlotte. You will be no different than any woman who has gone before.”
I jerked up straight and pointed towards the foundling hospital. “Look! Here come the gravediggers carrying a small coffin. Another poor child has lost her life in that wretched place.”
Rosena jumped up. “Come, let us go see.” We dashed behind one of the monument-sized headstones and poked our heads out from either side; her to the right, me to the left.
A scarcity of larger headstones lay strewn amongst the ubiquitous, miniscule ones in the foundling hospital’s graveyard. Rosena and I suspected wealthy men of placing them there. Many believed Wofford acted as a dumping ground for the defective children of the rich as well as standing as an orphanage for the poor. The larger, grander headstones towered as monuments to the guilty rich.
The two diggers stopped some sixty feet away in a slight depression; and as they plunked down the coffin, it slipped and bounced off the ground depositing the naked body of a little girl. The men stood up and argued—probably over who caused the fall.
“Oh my!” Rosena whispered, throwing one hand over her mouth and lowering it again. “Can you believe that?”
“It’s horrid.” Pain blossomed in my bowels. I looked far to the south at Wofford’s one-story, U-shaped building stretched out in front of a larger building dwarfing it with its three stories of gloom. Two large wings projected towards me from its flanks, but their extreme distance prevented me from calculating their length. I knew, having seen the Guilford Street front entrance many times, that the wings protruded a good long distance back from the main structure.
“What do you think really goes on inside the foundling hospital?” I asked.
Rosena eased her fingers away from her side of the monument, drawing them down by her side. “I heard the unwanted children are used for medical experiments.”
“I would not be surprised; but do you know what I envision when I think of Wofford?” We glanced at each other and then peered back round the monument at the gravediggers. They seemed still lodged in argument.
“I see dark and dank hallways,” I continued, “painted with the drabbest gray in the color spectrum. Shadowy, winding staircases disappear into the scariest kind of darkness … the kind causing your hair to fly away from your flesh in terror. I see attendants slithering through the halls with their zombie gaits and straight, blank faces … and all six feet tall, ready to break trespassers in half.”
“Do you think they are killing the children in the attempt to make Frankensteins from their body parts?”
“Rose, I do not think we ought to be using our imaginations to go that far. These children could have had real lives; but because they were unwanted, they had no chance at life at all. It is tragic, truly tragic.” Tears filled my eyes, but my brain ordered my heart to hold them back. “It is ironic, do you not think so, that the poor girl is being buried in the lowest part of the cemetery after having been born into the lowest of lives?”
Rosena softened her voice. “Calm yourself. It is none of our doing.”
Even at sixty feet away we heard the men swear. The coffin had landed at their feet, but the girl’s body had rolled to the edge of the open grave. The bigger man shoved the girl’s body with his foot until it fell into the grave. Both picked up the coffin lid, placed it back on the coffin, and started heaving shovelfuls of dirt on top of the girl.
A tear trickled down one cheek. “They are not even burying her in the—” A lump in my throat cut off my air supply.
“Oh, Mary, Mother of God.” Rosena genuflected. “Hear my prayer and accept that little girl in your arms.”
We knew it would not take them long to fill the grave, because we had seen many open graves awaiting their young victims. They dug them barely deep enough to cover them with dirt.
Rosena pointed towards the grave, her voice stiffening. “Look. The girl’s hand is hanging just over the edge of her grave, and they are still covering her.”
As though the big man had heard Rosena, he gave the hand a kick and sent it plunging into the grave. He and his comrade continued to shovel dirt on top of her. About twenty minutes, thirty jokes, and at least ninety-nine guffaws later, they finished and trudged off towards the orphanage with the coffin. Losing sight of them, I touched Rosena’s arm.
“Come,” I said, and sprang towards the new grave. When we arrived, Rosena plunged to her knees, genuflected half-a-dozen times, and wept. Drained of all emotion, I stood cursing the world man had made for himself. I hated the fates for allowing such a thing to happen to an innocent soul too young to have left life behind.
I peered off at the orphanage in the distance. I hated what Wofford represented. It made me pronounce aloud some of the last words of poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon; the world was all before them, where to choose their place of rest ….”
“Amen,” Rosena said.
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