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Charles Dickens > No Thoroughfare > The Overture

No Thoroughfare

The Overture

Day of the month and year, November the thirtieth, one thousand
eight hundred and thirty-five. London Time by the great clock of
Saint Paul's, ten at night. All the lesser London churches strain
their metallic throats. Some, flippantly begin before the heavy
bell of the great cathedral; some, tardily begin three, four, half a
dozen, strokes behind it; all are in sufficiently near accord, to
leave a resonance in the air, as if the winged father who devours
his children, had made a sounding sweep with his gigantic scythe in
flying over the city.

What is this clock lower than most of the rest, and nearer to the
ear, that lags so far behind to-night as to strike into the
vibration alone? This is the clock of the Hospital for Foundling
Children. Time was, when the Foundlings were received without
question in a cradle at the gate. Time is, when inquiries are made
respecting them, and they are taken as by favour from the mothers
who relinquish all natural knowledge of them and claim to them for

The moon is at the full, and the night is fair with light clouds.
The day has been otherwise than fair, for slush and mud, thickened
with the droppings of heavy fog, lie black in the streets. The
veiled lady who flutters up and down near the postern-gate of the
Hospital for Foundling Children has need to be well shod to-night.

She flutters to and fro, avoiding the stand of hackney-coaches, and
often pausing in the shadow of the western end of the great
quadrangle wall, with her face turned towards the gate. As above
her there is the purity of the moonlit sky, and below her there are
the defilements of the pavement, so may she, haply, be divided in
her mind between two vistas of reflection or experience. As her
footprints crossing and recrossing one another have made a labyrinth
in the mire, so may her track in life have involved itself in an
intricate and unravellable tangle.

The postern-gate of the Hospital for Foundling Children opens, and a
young woman comes out. The lady stands aside, observes closely,
sees that the gate is quietly closed again from within, and follows
the young woman.

Two or three streets have been traversed in silence before she,
following close behind the object of her attention, stretches out
her hand and touches her. Then the young woman stops and looks
round, startled.

"You touched me last night, and, when I turned my head, you would
not speak. Why do you follow me like a silent ghost?"

"It was not," returned the lady, in a low voice, "that I would not
speak, but that I could not when I tried."

"What do you want of me? I have never done you any harm?"


"Do I know you?"


"Then what can you want of me?"

"Here are two guineas in this paper. Take my poor little present,
and I will tell you."

Into the young woman's face, which is honest and comely, comes a
flush as she replies: "There is neither grown person nor child in
all the large establishment that I belong to, who hasn't a good word
for Sally. I am Sally. Could I be so well thought of, if I was to
be bought?"

"I do not mean to buy you; I mean only to reward you very slightly."

Sally firmly, but not ungently, closes and puts back the offering
hand. "If there is anything I can do for you, ma'am, that I will
not do for its own sake, you are much mistaken in me if you think
that I will do it for money. What is it you want?"

"You are one of the nurses or attendants at the Hospital; I saw you
leave to-night and last night."

"Yes, I am. I am Sally."

"There is a pleasant patience in your face which makes me believe
that very young children would take readily to you."

"God bless 'em! So they do."

The lady lifts her veil, and shows a face no older than the nurse's.
A face far more refined and capable than hers, but wild and worn
with sorrow.

"I am the miserable mother of a baby lately received under your
care. I have a prayer to make to you."

Instinctively respecting the confidence which has drawn aside the
veil, Sally--whose ways are all ways of simplicity and spontaneity--
replaces it, and begins to cry.

"You will listen to my prayer?" the lady urges. "You will not be
deaf to the agonised entreaty of such a broken suppliant as I am?"

"O dear, dear, dear!" cries Sally. "What shall I say, or can say!
Don't talk of prayers. Prayers are to be put up to the Good Father
of All, and not to nurses and such. And there! I am only to hold
my place for half a year longer, till another young woman can be
trained up to it. I am going to be married. I shouldn't have been
out last night, and I shouldn't have been out to-night, but that my
Dick (he is the young man I am going to be married to) lies ill, and
I help his mother and sister to watch him. Don't take on so, don't
take on so!"

"O good Sally, dear Sally," moans the lady, catching at her dress
entreatingly. "As you are hopeful, and I am hopeless; as a fair way
in life is before you, which can never, never, be before me; as you
can aspire to become a respected wife, and as you can aspire to
become a proud mother, as you are a living loving woman, and must
die; for GOD'S sake hear my distracted petition!"

"Deary, deary, deary ME!" cries Sally, her desperation culminating
in the pronoun, "what am I ever to do? And there! See how you turn
my own words back upon me. I tell you I am going to be married, on
purpose to make it clearer to you that I am going to leave, and
therefore couldn't help you if I would, Poor Thing, and you make it
seem to my own self as if I was cruel in going to be married and not
helping you. It ain't kind. Now, is it kind, Poor Thing?"

"Sally! Hear me, my dear. My entreaty is for no help in the
future. It applies to what is past. It is only to be told in two

"There! This is worse and worse," cries Sally, "supposing that I
understand what two words you mean."

"You do understand. What are the names they have given my poor
baby? I ask no more than that. I have read of the customs of the
place. He has been christened in the chapel, and registered by some
surname in the book. He was received last Monday evening. What
have they called him?"

Down upon her knees in the foul mud of the by-way into which they
have strayed--an empty street without a thoroughfare giving on the
dark gardens of the Hospital--the lady would drop in her passionate
entreaty, but that Sally prevents her.

"Don't! Don't! You make me feel as if I was setting myself up to
be good. Let me look in your pretty face again. Put your two hands
in mine. Now, promise. You will never ask me anything more than
the two words?"

"Never! Never!"

"You will never put them to a bad use, if I say them?"

"Never! Never!"

"Walter Wilding."

The lady lays her face upon the nurse's breast, draws her close in
her embrace with both arms, murmurs a blessing and the words, "Kiss
him for me!" and is gone.

Day of the month and year, the first Sunday in October, one thousand
eight hundred and forty-seven. London Time by the great clock of
Saint Paul's, half-past one in the afternoon. The clock of the
Hospital for Foundling Children is well up with the Cathedral to-
day. Service in the chapel is over, and the Foundling children are
at dinner.

There are numerous lookers-on at the dinner, as the custom is.
There are two or three governors, whole families from the
congregation, smaller groups of both sexes, individual stragglers of
various degrees. The bright autumnal sun strikes freshly into the
wards; and the heavy-framed windows through which it shines, and the
panelled walls on which it strikes, are such windows and such walls
as pervade Hogarth's pictures. The girls' refectory (including that
of the younger children) is the principal attraction. Neat
attendants silently glide about the orderly and silent tables; the
lookers-on move or stop as the fancy takes them; comments in
whispers on face such a number from such a window are not
unfrequent; many of the faces are of a character to fix attention.
Some of the visitors from the outside public are accustomed
visitors. They have established a speaking acquaintance with the
occupants of particular seats at the tables, and halt at those
points to bend down and say a word or two. It is no disparagement
to their kindness that those points are generally points where
personal attractions are. The monotony of the long spacious rooms
and the double lines of faces is agreeably relieved by these
incidents, although so slight.

A veiled lady, who has no companion, goes among the company. It
would seem that curiosity and opportunity have never brought her
there before. She has the air of being a little troubled by the
sight, and, as she goes the length of the tables, it is with a
hesitating step and an uneasy manner. At length she comes to the
refectory of the boys. They are so much less popular than the girls
that it is bare of visitors when she looks in at the doorway.

But just within the doorway, chances to stand, inspecting, an
elderly female attendant: some order of matron or housekeeper. To
whom the lady addresses natural questions: As, how many boys? At
what age are they usually put out in life? Do they often take a
fancy to the sea? So, lower and lower in tone until the lady puts
the question: "Which is Walter Wilding?"

Attendant's head shaken. Against the rules.

"You know which is Walter Wilding?"

So keenly does the attendant feel the closeness with which the
lady's eyes examine her face, that she keeps her own eyes fast upon
the floor, lest by wandering in the right direction they should
betray her.

"I know which is Walter Wilding, but it is not my place, ma'am, to
tell names to visitors."

"But you can show me without telling me."

The lady's hand moves quietly to the attendant's hand. Pause and

"I am going to pass round the tables," says the lady's interlocutor,
without seeming to address her. "Follow me with your eyes. The boy
that I stop at and speak to, will not matter to you. But the boy
that I touch, will be Walter Wilding. Say nothing more to me, and
move a little away."

Quickly acting on the hint, the lady passes on into the room, and
looks about her. After a few moments, the attendant, in a staid
official way, walks down outside the line of tables commencing on
her left hand. She goes the whole length of the line, turns, and
comes back on the inside. Very slightly glancing in the lady's
direction, she stops, bends forward, and speaks. The boy whom she
addresses, lifts his head and replies. Good humouredly and easily,
as she listens to what he says, she lays her hand upon the shoulder
of the next boy on his right. That the action may be well noted,
she keeps her hand on the shoulder while speaking in return, and
pats it twice or thrice before moving away. She completes her tour
of the tables, touching no one else, and passes out by a door at the
opposite end of the long room.

Dinner is done, and the lady, too, walks down outside the line of
tables commencing on her left hand, goes the whole length of the
line, turns, and comes back on the inside. Other people have
strolled in, fortunately for her, and stand sprinkled about. She
lifts her veil, and, stopping at the touched boy, asks how old he

"I am twelve, ma'am," he answers, with his bright eyes fixed on

"Are you well and happy?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"May you take these sweetmeats from my hand?"

"If you please to give them to me."

In stooping low for the purpose, the lady touches the boy's face
with her forehead and with her hair. Then, lowering her veil again,
she passes on, and passes out without looking back.

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