Harkive: ‘A Pantomime Child’ – A Christmas Story

‘A Pantomime Child’ marks the end of Harkness’s extensive work for The British Weekly, the Christian progressive periodical in which she had written since her association with the ‘Tempted London’ series from 1887. It also appears to be the start of a habit of writing Christmas stories (Captain Lobe, serialised in the BW in 1888, had ended on a festive note), presenting the misery particularly of childhood in poverty in a seasonal style, following an almost Dickensian tradition. The following year, she published ‘Little Tim’s Christmas’ in the Pall Mall Gazette, and she continued to produce Christmas stories until the twentieth century, merging them with her Australian publishing career. The fate of children working in theatres was a social problem which preoccupied organisations like the National Vigilance Association during this period.

Source: The British Weekly: A Journal of Social and Christian Progress, 27 December 1889, p. 138. Print original held at the British Library.

The front page banner of this edition (p. 133) advertises ‘Stories by John Law, Amica, Annie S. Swan, Claudius Clear, &c.’

A PANTOMIME CHILD.

BY JOHN LAW.

“Mother, be careful. Oh, mother, do let me hold that penny.”

The speaker was a small child, dressed in a quaint cloak that covered her head and reached to her knees. She was seated in the corner of an omnibus, beside a woman, whip was evidently her mother. Both mother and child had delicate features; but the woman’s face bore traces of drunkenness.

“Oh, mother,” the child said again (and this time her little voice quivered), “do let me hold that penny. If you drop it in the straw I won’t be able to find it, and the conductor will be so angry. You know there isn’t another penny in the house—and to-morrow’s Christmas”

The mother took no notice of the child’s entreaties. Her head had fallen forwards, and her arms hung limply beside her knees. She was intoxicated, and her breath smelt so strongly of gin that a woman who was seated opposite to her, drew back, and said to a neighbour, “They ought not to let drunken folks like her inside omnibuses.”

The child heard the remark, and looked wistfully at the speaker for a minute. Then her attention was again absorbed by her drunken parent. She had fixed her eyes on the hand that held the penny, and she said, in a coaxing voice—

“Mother, let me hold the fare. I have my penny safe; let me hold your penny safe, too. You know, we’ve not got another penny in the house—and to-morrow’s Christmas!”

But the woman did not open her eyes to look at the speaker. Sheet her head fall back against the window of the omnibus, and crossed her arms on her knees. The child looked so anxious that a good-natured passenger offered her an old copper. She thanked him, gave a sigh of relief, and put the money in her pocket.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“Nine, sir.”

“Why are you out so late?”

“I’ve come from the grand rehearsal.”

“Where?”

“The theatre. I’m one of the pantomime children.”

“How long have you been in that line of business?”

“Two hundred years. Mother was in the Profession, and so was her mother, and her grandmother. I’m going to be an actress when I grow up, like Miss Ada, that lives with us.”

“Who is Miss Ada?”

“She’s a lady.”

“Is she on the stage, too?”

“Yes, so’s her dad. She sings, and she dances, and she’s an actress. I’m going to be an actress when I’m big; now I only do pantomimes at Christmas.”

“Have you a father?” the man asked, glancing, while he spoke, at the drunken woman.

“He’s dead,” the child said. “Miss Ada has a dad, but my dad died last Christmas.”

After that the man asked no more questions. The omnibus jogged along the Mile End-road, swaying from side to side, as the horses hurried homewards. It was late, so the vehicle was crowded. The conductor shouted, “Full up!” and stamped his foot to let the driver know that there was no more room inside or outside the omnibus. Sometimes he rubbed his hands together, sometimes he breathed upon his fingers, for it was seasonable weather—that is to say, fine and frosty.

“Stop,” cried the little girl, when the omnibus came to a street not far from the Assembly Hall.

“Now, mother, be careful,” she continued. “Lean on me, I’ll help you down the steps. Give the conductor your penny, mother.” So saying she helped her drunken parent out of the omnibus, and led her carefully across the road to the pavement.

‘I guess Miss Ada and her dad will be late to-night,” she remarked, after they had stopped at the door of a rag-shop. “Miss Ada has to sing at three music-halls, so I guess she won’t be in till morning. There’s not a penny in the house, but she said she’d give me a Christmas-box, and her dad said Christmas morning he’d give me a shilling.”

She fumbled in her pocket, and produced a latchkey to unlock the door. This being done, she led the way into the rag-shop.

“Wait while I find the matches, mother,” she said. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

She returned with a lighted candle, in an old tin candlestick.

“Come on, mother, into the kitchen,” she said; “the fire’s not out yet, and there’s some tea in the teapot.”

The drunken woman had thrown herself down on a heap of old clothes, and the child was obliged to help her up again. Before doing this she placed the candlestick on the shop counter, and from thence its feeble light fell on the rags and rubbish that were heaped against the walls or scattered upon the floor. Rags, nothing but rags, many of them filthy beyond description, were there, waiting to be weighed and sorted. The shop looked weird enough even by the dim light of the dip candle, but the child was accustomed to the sight, also to the smell of rags and rubbish. Her other had been an actress, but had sunk through drink into the position of a rag vendor.

At last the managed to place the woman in a chair near the kitchen fire-place, and this being done she took off her cloak. She stood still then, thinking what she should do next. The dip-candle let her see the kitchen, and a few off embers in the grate lighted up a tin teapot. Her mother would like some tea, she thought, so she fetched a cup form the cupboard, and poured some tea into it.

“I don’t want that muck,” the woman said. “I want some gin. Have you any money, Dolly?”

The child shook her head.

“I want some gin,” the mother said, again, “and I’ll have it before morning.”

Dolly took no notice of this threat, but proceeded to light another dip-candle. She then left her mother in the kitchen, and went upstairs.

“Miss Ada and her dad will be late to-night, I guess,” she said; but I’ll light the fire and the lamp. Then I’ll coax mother to bed. To-morrow Miss Ada will give me the Christmas-box, and Miss Ada’s dad will give me a shilling.”

The lodgers’ rooms upstairs were a paradise in the eyes of poor little Dolly. She stepped carefully when her feet touched their carpet. They had brought their own furniture to the rag shop, and had made the rooms upstairs very smart and comfortable when contrasted with the rag vendor’s kitchen. In days gone by, Miss Ada’s father had acted with Dolly’s mother; and, for the sake of old times, the lodgers upstairs put up with the smell of gin and the discomfort of living above a rag shop. (Perhaps, also, the arrangement suited their pocket.)

Dolly lighted the lamp, and then began to light the fire. She looked very small indeed while kneeling there in the semi-darkness. Her ragged brown frock let her bare neck and arms be seen. Her legs were covered with old white stockings. She wore earrings, two rings with sham jewels set in brass, and a bead necklace. When she rose up from the hearth she stood still for a few minutes, looking at herself in a mirror that hung over the fireplace. She sighed while looking at her own reflection, and she did not seem to realise the fact that few pantomime children could boast of a prettier face, or of a thicker crop of the yellow hair than those which were reflected in the mirror.

“I’m so small, and so thin,” she said; “I wonder if I’ll ever grow big enough to be an actress! If I could dance, and sing, like Miss Ada, I’d be so happy. Dad used to be proud of me, just as Miss Ada’s dad is proud of her. I do so miss my daddy.”

She walked slowly across the room and stopped beside and old trunk that was used to hold Miss Ada’s theatre dresses. “I wish,” she said, “they’d keep their boxes locked. That trunk is always open, and I know Miss Ada’s dad has his money-box in it.” So saying she closed the lid of the trunk, and having looked at the fire and turned down the wick of the lamp, she went back again to the kitchen.

“Mother, it’s time to go to bed,” she said, approaching her parent. “I’ve put all straight upstairs. Come to bed, mother.”

“I aint [sic] going till I’ve had some gin,” said the woman. “Have you any money, Dolly?”

The child shook her head.

“You can’t get more gin to-night, mother,” she said; “the shops are shut. Hark! It’s Christmas morning. The bells are ringing.”

A peal of bells was heard then, sharp and clear, telling little Dolly that it was Christmas. The bells sent a thrill through her. She could not tell why it was that they made her feel hopeful. She had not spent many happy Christmases; but she was young, and all young things have hope in them.

“Hark! mother,” she said, “don’t they sound plain? Father used to say bells were the voices of angels come to sing about heaven to us. Mother, aren’t you glad it’s Christmas?”

“I want some gin,” said the drunken woman, “and I’ll have gin before morning.”

The child turned sadly away, and began to undress herself. She unfastened the earrings and placed them carefully upon the table. Then she took off the rings, and the necklace. She was very tired, because she had come from the grand rehearsal, which had lasted nearly four hours; and she was glad to think that she need not rehearse on Christmas Day, that to-morrow she would have a holiday. In a few minutes she had thrown herself on an old bedstead in the kitchen, and presently she was sleeping.

Perhaps she slept for half an hour, perhaps she was only asleep for ten minutes. Anyhow, she woke up with a start. When she sat up in bed, and rubbed her eyes, she found herself quite alone in the kitchen; the mother was not there; the chair beside the fire was empty, and upstairs in the lodgers’ room she heard footsteps. She jumped out of bed, and ran into the passage. There she stood in her short, while nightdress, with her curly yellow hair falling about her neck and shoulders, listening to the footsteps in the room above, wondering if the lodgers had come in, and what her mother could be doing. The cold air made her shiver, for it was one o’clock and Christmas.

“I’d best see who it is upstairs,” she said to herself. So she went quickly up the staircase.

Directly she had reached the landing, she saw her mother coming out of the lodgers’ room; and in her mother’s hand she saw the lodgers’ cash-box.

“Mother! mother!” she cried in a loud voice. “Oh, mother, what have you done? You’ve been stealing.”

“I want gin,” the woman said, “and gin I’ll have before morning. Let me go by,” she continued, trying to push aside the child; “let me go downstairs.”

“Oh, mother, put it back,” Dolly pleaded, trembling all over while she spoke, and trying to reach the cash-box. “I’ve a penny in the kitchen, what was given me by a gentleman in the ’bus. I only kept it because I thought there’d be no money for breakfast. I’ll give you that penny, mother, only let me put back the cash-box before Miss Ada comes in. Oh, mother, it’s stealing.”

But the woman swore at her, and said again: “I want gin, and I’ll have it before morning.”

Without another word the child sprang up, seized the cash-box in her small hand, and dragged it away from her mother. Her figure became quite rigid, and her face grew as pale as her nightdress while she did this; but she managed to drag the cash-box out of the woman’s grasp, and to hold it fast in her small fingers. A minute later she lay at the foot of the staircase, with the cash-box beside her and blood on her nightdress.

“I’ll come after you,” screamed her drunken parent; “I want gin, and I’ll have it. How dare you take away that money?”

But before the woman could get half way down the staircase, the front door was thrown open, and a man came in, singing—

“England for the English.”

He was followed by a girl who wore a short white dress, covered with silver spangles, also white shoes and stockings. A long black cloak was thrown carelessly round the girl’s figure, and over her hair she wore a white shawl.

It was easy to see that the girl was an actress, and that her father also belonged to “the Profession.” Both of them had the jaunty air of the music-hall, and the happy-go-lucky expression of the second-rate artiste.

“Why, what have we here?” the man exclaimed, when he saw Dolly, “and what’s this?” he continued, picking up the cash-box.

“Dolly,” cried the actress, throwing off her cloak, and kneeling down beside the child. “Dolly, are you ill, darling?”

“I’ll carry her upstairs,” the actor said. “I guess what’s happened. Someone has tried to steal my cash-box, and Dolly has saved the money.”

“Oh, father, perhaps there’s a robber upstairs!” Ada whispered, “let’s go into the kitchen.”

“Nonsense!” the actor answered; “the child must have some brandy at once. She’s badly hurt; there’s blood on her nightdress.”

Saying this, he lifted Dolly up, and bade his daughter follow him, with the cash-box.

Halfway up the staircase he met Dolly’s drunken parent.

The truth then flashed upon him.

“It’s you, is it?” he said, “you drunkard and thief! You’ve been trying to steal my money.”

The woman said nothing. She stumbled downstairs, and a minute later she went out into the street, where she was quickly lost in the darkness.

The actor walked into the sitting-room, and sat down in the chair which Dolly had drawn near to the fireplace, ready for him when he should came [sic] in. His daughter knelt beside him. They examined the child’s face, and felt her cold body; and then they decided that she had fainted. So Ada fetched some brandy, and moistened her lips, while the actor rubbed her hands and feet with his warm fingers. The cash-box was placed on the table, but neither father nor daughter spoke of it, they were both so intent on what could be done for poor little Dolly. Ada covered her up with a cloak, crying all the time, because she did not open her eyes, or take any notice. The actor watched the child’s white face, and whistled “England for the English.”

Outside, in the streets, a few carts were passing by, there was a rumbling noice of wheels, and the clanging of church bells. Sometimes a voice was heard, but passers-by were few and far between, because it was half-past one o’clock, and Christmas morning.

Silence reigned supreme in the house, except in the lodgers’ room; it was quite still in the rag-shop, and quite still in the kitchen.

“I wish she’d speak or move,” the actor said; “I’m getting anxious. I think I’d better fetch a doctor.

“Wait a moment longer, father,” said the actress; “I think she’s coming to. She’s swallowing the brandy quite nicely now. Have a drop yourself.”

“Well, I don’t mind if I do taste it.”

Ada fetched a glass, and mixed some brandy and water for her father. She looked very pretty in her short white dress, although the sham jewels and the silver spangles gave her costume a tawdry appearance. Her neck and arms were white and rounded, and she had neat little ankles and feet. But she did not think about her appearance or throw a single glance into the mirror above the fireplace. She watched Dolly, who lay on the actor’s knee, and she thought of the loving care that the little girl had always shown her. The actor sipped his brandy while he pillowed the curly head on his arm and pressed the child’s pale cheek against his black sleeve. His role was that of a stage villain, but he was a kind-hearted man and fond of children.

“I’ll lay her on the sofa, father,” Ada said; “I can see better there if she’s moving. Besides, you’ll upset the glass if you don’t take care.”

“I’m stiff,” said the actor.

Ada took the child from him, and placed her on the sofa. Both father and daughter felt anxious. The actor said again and again that he must fetch a doctor, but Ada did not like to be left alone in the house, and assured her father that Dolly would be all right again in a few minutes.

The minutes seemed like hours to the actress. She thought of the presents that lay in the cupboard for Dolly—a hat and a muff, also a little purse with half-a-crown in it.

Dolly deserved more than that, but it was of no use to give the child money, because her mother spent every penny in gin and gave her nothing.

When Dolly recovered, they must see what could be done about getting her away from this drunken woman. Perhaps it would be possible to find her a place with some Company. For two hundred years Dolly’s family had been in “the Profession,” and that was a great recommendation. She would consult her father about it. Now that Dolly’s mother had proved to be a thief, as well as a drunkard, they really must leave the rag-shop. And if they went away, Dolly should go with them.

The actress was startled out of her reverie by a weak, low voice, that said:

“Miss Ada, I’ve seen my daddy. He’s in such a beautiful place, and he’s going to take me there for Christmas.”

She looked at the child, and then beckoned to the stage villain.

“Father,” she whispered, “there’s something strange and queer about Dolly. She’s not herself. What is it?”

“I’ll fetch the doctor,” said the actor; “she’s very ill, that’s certain. I’ll put on my coat, and be back in a minute.”

“Yes, go, and be quick,” whispered the actress.

After he had gone away Dolly closed her eyes, and seemed to be dozing. She lay very still, nd the actress watched her with a beating heart, feeling frightened and nervous.

Presently the child’s voice once again broke the stillness. She raised herself from the sofa with a sudden spring, held out her arms, and said:

“There’s daddy, he’s come again. Daddy, I’m coming!”

Then she fell back on the pillow, which the actress had placed under her head, and her eyes grew dim. Ada tried to raise her hand. It was stiff and lifeless. But her face shone with a smile of such unearthly bliss that the actress lost all fear, and bent down to kiss her.

“Ada, my dear, the doctor’s coming,” said the stage villain, hurrying back into the room; “I left him to dress. He’ll be with us in a few minutes.”

“Father, come here,” whispered Ada.

The actor approached the sofa, and stooped down to look at little Dolly.

“I wish the doctor would be quick,” he said; “I don’t like her to sleep in this heavy way. He’ll know how to wake her up.”

“Father,” Ada said, “no doctor can wake her up again. She is in heaven.”

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