A Dickensian Tale by Amber Meyer

There was a tiny knock upon the door followed by a larger, heavier knock. Bailywick wrinkled his brow and pushed aside the payroll papers he had been working on. He approached the door with caution. It was rare that another human being ever encroached upon the solitude his personal residence offered. It was for this reason; he so often brought work home with him and labored in the lamplight at the sensible oak table that sat in his study. He peeked through the thick draperies and saw on his front porch, a gentleman and a small boy he judged to be around six years of age.

“Go away,” he roared, without opening the door. “There’ll be no charity found for you here.”

“Please Mr. Bumble. I have urgent personal business to discuss,” came a voice from the other side.

“Why bring a little lad with you to discuss business with me? Clearly, he is a tool you use to draw sympathy from your patrons and encourage them to donate more to your cause. I say again, go away.”

“This lad is your nephew,” said the voice on the other side taking on more than a hint of agitation. Bailywick pondered this new information and all of its potential implications and grudgingly opened the door, upon which action the man rushed in without invitation; the small boy and a great gust of December fast upon his heels.

“Thank you,” said the man turning to face him, “For your gracious invitation.” His voice was laced with sarcasm dipped in venom. Despite the acidity of his manner, the boy clung to him practically hiding beneath the man’s waistcoat. “As I was saying,” he continued, thrusting the boy forth, “This is your nephew Peter Clark. My name is Alexander Lawson. I am tasked with the handling of orphans in the case of an estate.”

Mr. Lawson was dressed as well as he spoke. He was wearing a pair of sleek leather gloves that glistened in the lamplight. Lawson was a man of professionalism and efficiency and had Bailywick ever bothered to ask his superiors; he would have heard testaments to Lawson’s ability at his chosen occupation.

Bailywick lifted his lamp to take a closer look at the boy. He had still not ruled out the possibility of robbers. He made a mental note as to the location of his blunderbuss and his purse. Just two fortnights ago, he had heard of a stagecoach robbery that had been attempted with the use of a young boy as bait. Both undesirables had been shot by the veteran stagecoach driver and had limped off into the night with the boy on their heels.

Even children could not be trusted anymore. He surveyed the boy carefully and drew in a deep inhale of breath. The boy was a much younger reflection of himself. The resemblance was undeniable. He’d never laid eyes on the youth, but he no longer doubted the truth of the man’s statement.

“Whose?” He whispered.

“Your sister Ruth’s I’m afraid,” said Mr. Lawson.

“Ruth died in childbirth,” Bailywick said a twisting pain of old grief for the loss of his twin, wiggling in his chest.

“Yes, but Peter here survived. His father has been raising him alone until he recently passed as I’m sure you are well aware. His other relatives are all unable to manage the care of a child. Three of your siblings are in the poor house as we speak.”

“Balderdash,” Bailywick said with a sneer. “Ruth’s husband has a brother that could…”

“Had a brother,” Lawson retorted. “Both Peter’s father and his brother perished recently under mysterious circumstances.”

“You can’t expect me to raise him?” Bailywick said raising his furry brows with an almost pleading expression.

“It is your duty,” Lawson said.

“That’s what orphanages are for,” Bailywick said, indignant that such a man as this should dare preach to him about duty. He voice exited his throat louder than he intended. At this the boy returned to the safety of Lawson’s coattails, only his eyes visible as they peeked back.

“The orphanages here are currently full,” Lawson returned. “I can send a letter up to London to see about placing him there, but until then, he is your responsibility.”

“I see,” Bailywick said meeting Lawson’s frigid stare with an icy glare of his own design. “Send your letter then. I expect to hear back from you soon.”

With that, Lawson nodded and removed himself from Peter’s grasp and Bailywick’s lodging with nare another word spoken.

Peter blinked, but did not cry and Bailywick considered this fact with quiet gratitude.

“Are you hungry?” Bailywick grumbled. “I have some stew.”

Peter nodded without lifting his eyes from the floor. He was wringing his hat with nervous energy, but was otherwise quiet and polite.

Bailywick led him to the dining room table. He placed some thick volumes on a chair and the boy climbed up with a smile. Bailywick then pushed in his chair and fetched them both a steaming bowl of stew which he laid upon the table with a “Clunk!”. The boy jumped a little, but wasted no time dipping his spoon into the piping hot dish. He gave his laden spoonfull two puffs of his thin, little breath and then shoved the entire spoonful in his mouth. Bailywick opened his mouth to exclaim that it was too hot for the boy to conduct his meal in this fashion, but he shut it again when the boy repeated the process with energetic determination.

Bailywick turned up the lamp so that he could conduct a more proper examination of the boy without notice. Peter was thin and his hair disheveled and overgrown. His clothes were tattered and covered in the general filth associated with the lower class. It was a state that Bailywick remembered well, having been born himself in a workhouse and he shuddered at the uninvited remembrance of what had been shoved to the back of his mind, where it cracked the whip, which drove Bailywick Bumble ever onward and away from his poor early existence.

The boy proceeded to scrape the bottom of the bowl with his spoon. It made a small noise as he did so and he glanced up and braced himself as if about to suffer a blow.

“Would you like some more?” Bailywick said. The boy nodded politely as if he had been offered something of little consequence, but his eyes looked desperate. Bailywick ladled out another bowl and started to sit it in front of the youth and then stopped for a moment. He watched a tear run down the boys cheek as if he thought his prize about to be taken as part of some sick sport.

“Slower this time,” Bailywick said softening, before setting the bowl down. He gave Peter a gentle pat on the back and the boy looked up at him with a glow of admiration.

When he smiled, he looked like any other boy and without the dirt, Bailywick supposed a rather attractive youth at that.

“Have you had any schooling?” Bailywick said, dipping into his own stew.

“A little,” the boy said not looking up from the golden mixture before him.

“You should have finished your first year by now.”

“I don’t go all the time sir,” he said with a sheepish glance. “My father needed my help sometimes.”

“I see,” said Bailywick raising a bushy brow.

“It made you happy to miss your lessons, I suppose.”

“Oh no sir,” Peter said looking up at him and putting down his spoon for the first time. “I really enjoyed school. I rather missed it most of the time and I begged to go, but as father insisted he needed me and all, I just couldn’t. Mrs. Pettigrew really was lovely about it though. She never complained or made me feel bad. I always swore I’d make it up to her and she’d smile and sneak me a piece of candy.”

“A piece of candy?”

“Yes, the most delightful butterscotch. It’s the only candy I’ve ever tasted. Do you think they have teachers like her in London?” Peter said hopeful.

“I highly doubt it,” Bailywick said, not wanting to give the boy unreasonable expectations, but then regretting it the moment he saw Peter’s crestfallen expression.

“That’s alright,” Peter said. “I can at least tell her good-bye before I go. Can’t I? Just once?”

“You will have to attend school until Mr. Lawson finds you a permanent situation. I will send you to Mrs. Pettigrew first thing in the morning,” Bailywick said. Peter smiled again and a happy tear slid down his cheek and Bailywick fought an angry gnawing in his stomach.

Peter was a mirror of himself some twenty-five years ago. Bailywick Bumble was a successful man by anyone’s standard. He owned three mills and they ran with the efficiency of a Swedish timepiece and churned out money, but he oft wondered what he could have accomplished if he’d been born into better circumstances. He could have owned ten mills, twenty even. What could Peter do with the right tutelage? He resigned himself to discuss it with Mrs. Pettigrew. He needed to a clearer picture as to Peter’s aptitude before he did anything further with the idea that was beginning to take shape inside his breast.

The next morning, Bailywick Bumble awoke before daybreak and was surprised to find Peter seated at the table with his hands politely crossed. He was clean, mostly clean and he was wearing what Bailywick surmised to be his best clothing although it was still quite shabby.

“Good morning sir,” Peter said.

“Good morning,” Bumble grumbled, still rubbing his eyes. “I’m glad you’re up early. We have some things to take care of before school.”

“Yes sir,” Peter said. Bailywick then turned his attention to preparing breakfast. Mrs. Juniper was hired to keep the house and cook most of his meals, but today was her day off. Normally he prepared porridge for himself on these days, but just yesterday he had decided to treat himself with the purchase of bacon and eggs and he cooked both now in an iron skillet, still in his bedclothes and slippers. Peter’s face resembled the angels captured in stained glass at the church on Barnaby Street as he sat patiently waiting. Bailywick sat a heaping plate down in front of Peter with three eggs and three slices of bacon and a whole roll. It was much more than a boy his size should be able to eat. Peter looked up at him, his eyes pleading for permission.

“Go on,” Bailywick said. “We have much to do.”

Peter lifted his fork and dug into the eggs with enthusiasm. Bailywick saw a tear of joy run down the boys cheek as he took a careful bite of the bacon and chewed it like it was the last morsel he would ever receive. “This is the best breakfast I have ever had,” the boy said. “Thank you sir. Thank you very much.” Then, without wasting another breath he made the rest of his breakfast disappear without so much as a trace.

“You’re welcome,” Bailywick said. He couldn’t help but smile to himself as his dipped his own fork in the yolk and smeared it around with his bread. As soon as breakfast was concluded, they bustled out in the wicked wintry cold. Peter stomped along behind, following quite literally in Bailywick’s footsteps. They trudged all the way to town. By the time they trumped into the clothing store, Bailywick’s cheeks had a rosy red glow as did the top of Peter’s ears. Bailywick sent Peter back with the shop owner to take his measurements.

“How long will it be before my order is filled,” said Bailywick.

“I’m three weeks out right now due to Christmas,” the tailer replied.

“Get it done before Christmas and I will be sure to reward you,” Bailywick said, patting his purse to make clear his point.

“Yes sir,” said the shop keeper with a glint of surprise. The trudged back out into a blinding wind. Peter led the way now. They were close to the school house and he new the way from here, his youthful enthusiasm making his way.

“Good morning, Peter,” Mrs. Pettigrew greeted them as they entered. “Is this your father?”

“No ma’am,” Peter said. “This is my Uncle Bailywick Bumble. He’s the best Uncle a boy ever had.”

“I don’t doubt it,” replied Mrs. Pettigrew with a radiance that only a woman in her gentle condition could maintain.

Bailywick was slightly taken aback by her swollen abdomen. It was somehow not at all what he had expected. He proceeded cautiously. “May I speak with you privately for just a moment,” he said. “I promise not to take up to much of your time.”

“Certainly,” she said. “Peter, why don’t you go take that empty seat right up front?”

Peter bobbed his head with joy. “Fare thee well Uncle. I will see you when school is out,” he said, rushing to his seat with all of the self-control that a six year old boy could be expected to muster.

“He is a delightful boy,” Mrs. Pettigrew said, closing the classroom door. “I do hope that he will be in school more often.”

“His father recently passed,” Bailywick began, clearing his throat. “And he was brought to my door.”

“How kind of you to take him in,” Mrs. Pettigrew said. “I’m so glad. He is such a good boy. Always a joy to have in class, he is.”

“Is he a very good student?” Bailywick ventured, unsure of how to broach the matter at hand.

“Oh yes,” she said. “He is very bright. Catches on so quickly to all manner of things. I dare say he’s one of the brightest students I have ever had. Such a shame the way his education has been conducted. I’m sure that a man such as yourself will not let that continue,” She said. “You will know how to take care of a bright boy like Peter and give him a decent way in life.”

“Yes,” he said. “About that. I was just wondering as you seem to be so close to Peter, much closer than I, well, I just wondered if there is any way that you could oversee his upbringing? I’d pay for his keep of course.” Bailywick stared at his feet and twisted his hat like a school boy that had misbehaved and was busy figuring out an apology.

“Oh Mr. Bumble,” said Mrs. Pettigrew. “I wish that I was able. I’m about to have number eight and we just haven’t any more room. Besides, a boy like Peter would do better under a wise man of business. You could teach him so much and he would make such a fine heir for a bachelor.” Bailywick glanced up at her. Her eyes were still gentle and kind without the least bit of judgment in them.

“Of course,” Bailywick said, shuffling his feet. “I was just worried about him growing up without the love of a mother, you know. I think he is quite fond of you. My poor sister Ruth would have loved him so, if she had just had the chance.”

“That’s very kind of you Mr. Bumble,” she said. “I’m sure that Peter will grow up to be a fine young man.”

“I’m certain that you are correct,” Bailywick said, tipping his hat and walking away. Being a man of business, Bailywick Bumble was a master of difficult negotiations and he knew when he had been beaten. Mrs. Pettigrew was kind and had a face that hailed all the sweetness of the virgin Mary, but she was as artful a dodger as he’d ever witnessed.

Outside, he found a stagecoach to carry him to the mill. He stepped inside and wrapped his jacket tightly around his ever expanding waistline. He took a small flask out of his pocket and sipped a bit of brandy to warm up his blood and clear his mind. As they approached the mill, he looked at it in the distance. It was a fine mill, as fine a mill as any a man had ever owned and Mrs. Pettigrew’s words about an heir echoed in his mind.

He shoved it out of his mind and busied himself with the work of the day. He was surprised when his office door opened shortly after lunch and Mr. Lawson breezed in with scarcely a knock. Bailywick’s shoulders tightened at the sight of him.

“Your back rather sooner than expected,” Bailywick said not bothering to get up.

“I gave the matter my utmost attention as you requested,” Lawson said with a sniff.

“You found a nice place for the boy?” Bailywick said putting his pen down. He held his breath.

“Most certainly,” he said. “I found him an apprenticeship.”

“An apprenticeship,” Bailywick said feeling himself relax. “That sounds promising. What trade would the lad be learning.”

“He will be training as a chimney-sweep,” Lawson said taking a seat and peeling off his gloves. He pulled some papers out of his pocket and slid them across the large oak desk.

“Chimney-sweep?” Bailywick roared.

“He’s an orphan of lowly stock,” Lawson said. “You can’t afford to be choosy.”

“But a chimney-sweep,” Bailywick said. “He’s a very bright boy. He could learn most any trade. I dare say he could be a doctor or a lawyer. I would be more than happy to help pay for his education.”

“His father died in the commission of a stagecoach robbery. You won’t find any doctors or lawyers who want to take in the son of a known criminal. I was lucky to find this. Just sign the papers and I will be on my way.”

Bailywick picked up the papers and tried to read them, but the words blurred. He got up from the table and walked across the room stopping in front of the hearth to warm himself. He looked down at them again. The words youth and chimney-sweep printed in deep black swirly handwriting stared back at him and he tossed the papers into the fireplace in disgust.

“In God’s name,” Lawson said jumping out of his chair. “Those will have to be rewritten now.”

“No,” Bailywick said. “I have changed my mind. I will be keeping the boy.”

“Are you quite sure,” Lawson said.

“Yes. Quite certain of it. I’m sorry to have caused you trouble,” he said sitting back down behind the desk.

“Well then,” Lawson said. “Here are the papers I was going to have Mr. Lacy sign. If you will sign these naming Peter as your dependent, then I will take my leave of you.”

Bailywick Bumble pulled out his pen and signed the new papers with a smile.

“A Merry Christmas to you,” Lawson said as he collected them an bustled back out into the December snow. A smile alighted upon his face as soon as he exited the mill.

“And a very merry Christmas Peter,” he whispered under his breath. “A very Merry Christmas indeed.” He couldn’t help laugh to himself as there had never been a chimney-sweep. Mr. Lawson, as you have been told, was indeed very good at his job.
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2 thoughts on “A Dickensian Tale by Amber Meyer

  1. Thanks Molly. We writer types need the occasional incouragement. It's greatly appreciated. I'm featuring Stephen King next. It should be out in late May. Are you a writer or just an avid reader?

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