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Watercress Girl

London, late April 1847

“Heigho!” Kat yelled angrily and dashed from a parlour window.

She plummeted down the stairs, vaulted through the front hall taking up an umbrella without slowing, and charged out the front door onto the pavement.

“My lady!” Reynold called, making chase. “Wait!”

A moment previously, Kat had witnessed three shabbily attired bare-foot boys run into a little girl who sold watercress in the neighbourhood and often stood on the corner. They pushed her over onto the street, pulled her apron over her face, then sprinted away toward Hyde Park. As Kat ran to her aid, she saw the girl sitting in the dirt, peering around bewildered with large round staring eyes.

“Are you hurt?” Kat asked upon reaching the girl.

“My lady…” Reynold came to a halt beside Kat on the pavement. “What are you doing?”

“Three boys, that way!” Kat pointed with the umbrella.

Reynold swivelled around in a fighting stance.

“No, no! They’ve run off!” Kat spat, furious at their ineffectiveness. She turned to the girl. “Are you all right?”

“Yes, Miss. Thank you, Miss. Watercresses, Miss?” The girl spoke in a high, slight, vacuous tone as she knelt over her spilt produce and gathered the bunches into her basket, feebly wiping away the dusty smears from the leaves. She picked up a small tin and froze a moment, then looked in her basket, then at the ground.

A watercress girl and street boys.

Mid 19th Century depictions of a watercress girl and London street boys.

“Those boys stole your earnings,” Kat said bitterly, scanning the street for any sign of them, her heart pounding. “Grr! I wish I could have caught them.” She slashed the air spitefully with the umbrella.

Two extravagantly dressed gentlemen stopped.

“May we be of assistance?” one asked, bowing to Kat.

“This little girl has been robbed, here, in our street!” Kat exclaimed.

“An outrage, to be sure,” the man said.

“Indeed, ‘ow haudacious,” the other chimed in, affecting the slangy accent used by many of the wealthy London gadabouts and dandies.

“Watercresses, Sirs?” the girl asked weakly, offering a bunch in her small hand, a tear slowly rolling down one rosy cheek.

Neither man answered, but stood smiling at Kat. Mrs. Crozier approached with a face like thunder. Her dark look, imposing height, and the menacing way she clutched her walking stick caused the men to retreat a few paces. She stood between them and Kat,

“Thank you, Messieurs, that is quite enough,” the society tutor said with clipped sharp syllables. “This young lady does not speak with men unknown to her. On your way, please.”

The men tipped their silver-grey top hats and strolled off.

“How dare you leave the parlour in such a fashion,” Mrs. Crozier hissed to Kat. “Out in a house gown, without a hat or gloves, wearing slippers! What if a neighbour should see you? Do you–

“Three ruffians attacked this little girl!” Kat thought severe physical punishment brewed in her near future and abandoned all caution. “There wasn’t time for all your proper decorum!” She turned her back on Mrs. Crozier and crouched down to face the girl. “How much did you lose?” she asked.

“I don’t know, Miss,” she mewled sadly. “I’ve sold half my basket.”

“How much is a bunch?”

“If you please, Miss, a large fresh bunch a farthing.” She looked at the wilted dusty leaves in her hand. “Some less. A half farthing, please.”

“I’m Kat. What’s your name?”

“Pixie, Miss.”

“That’s a sweet name.” Kat considered the girl’s basket and thought perhaps three dozen bunches of watercress might fit within. “Come home with me.” She passed the umbrella to Reynold, then took the basket and held Pixie’s hand.

“Could I rinse my watercresses there?”

“Yes, and I’ll give you a shilling for what you have and to replace your losses.”

“You cannot bring this urchin into Lord Beaufort’s house!” Mrs. Crozier insisted.

“He’s my father!” Kat snapped. “He can tell me otherwise.”

“You must do as…”

But Kat didn’t hear the conclusion of Mrs. Crozier’s sentence, she’d already walked away with Pixie. Reynold strode beside her, between the girls and the street.

“A shilling, Miss?” Pixie asked with her ongoing puzzled voice. “How much is that?”

“Twelve pence.”

“Oh… that’s much more… Auntie Mo will be very happy.”

“You work for your Auntie Mo?”

“I live with my Auntie Mo.”

As they approached the steps of the Beaufort’s house, Reynold bounded up to the door, holding it open, standing at attention. Miss Nestor hovered within the portico, wringing her hands.

“This is your home, Miss?” Pixie craned up to the highest windows with her mouth hanging open.

“Our Mayfair residence, yes.” Kat guided her into the front hall, to the middle of the polished marble tiles. “We have an old hunting lodge out off Brompton Road, and an estate in Somersetshire. This house was built during the reign of Charles the Second.”

“Charles Thesecund built it in the rain, Miss?”

Mrs. Crozier let out a small snort of disgust.

“What’s all this?” Mrs. Farewell entered the hall with an arched eyebrow.

“Nanny, this is Pixie. She’s had a bad turn with some bullies. Please take her to the kitchen. Ask Cook to feed her.”

“I must rinse my watercresses,” Pixie said softly, taking the basket from Kat.

“Of course, child.” Mrs. Farewell smiled. “Come with me.”

For a moment, Kat, Mrs. Crozier, and Miss Nestor stood in an uneven triangle casting glances at each other. Isabel entered with two pairs of freshly polished boots but immediately retreated back along the hallway. Reynold guffawed from the threshold and slipped into the cloakroom.

“I know what I did wrong,” Kat began, before Mrs. Crozier burst forth with a tirade, “but for all I knew she could have been seriously hurt! What if she’d been stabbed?”

Miss Nestor nodded. “It was a brave and–”

“What if you had been stabbed?” Mrs. Crozier demanded, ignoring the governess. “Suppose the boys had knives!”

“I was armed!” Kat countered.

“With an umbrella!”

The study door opened and Earl Beaufort stepped out with a frown. “Ladies?”

“Reynold was close behind me!” Kat posed with hands on hips and tossed her head. “He carries a pistol.”

“And would have been too late!” Mrs. Crozier stated firmly.

“Too late for what?”

“To protect you!”

“Ha! They wouldn’t have attacked me anyway. I don’t carry money!”

“You believe the grubby scum are so well informed? Those boys spy you, in silk and jewellery, alone in the street? They would have cut you down for your necklace. Did you consider that for a moment?”

“I would have fought them off! I’m going to ask my brother to make me an umbrella and a parasol with a sword inside.”

“You should have sent the footman. Not charged in alone! There are–

“Ladies!” Earl Beaufort took a tentative step forward.

“Your daughter is impetuous, wilful, and wild, my lord.” Mrs Crozier glided towards him and curtsied. “And she addressed Mrs. Farewell as Nanny again. With your permission, I’ll take Lady Kat to her room for punishment.”

“Ah…” His face reddened. “If that’s–

“My lady doesn’t deserve to be punished,” Miss Nestor said from the shadow of a pillar. She eased out slowly. “Lady Kat only acted courageously. And then with charity. Most Christian. She should be encouraged and rewarded for her magnanimous actions.”

Mrs. Crozier glared down her nose at Miss Nestor. Earl Beaufort looked from tutor to governess and back again

“May I please have a shilling, Father?” Kat asked sweetly.

Reynold’s stifled laughs rumbled from the cloakroom.

***

“The child is clean, and neat, polite to a fault, and under fed,” Mrs. Farewell reported, standing at the doors of the parlour. “Her growth is stunted. She claims to be ten years of age.”

“Ten?” Kat said. “I thought she might be all of six or seven.”

“She’s obviously a simpleton,” Mrs. Crozier stated scathingly. “An idiot.”

“Poor child,” Miss Nestor whispered.

“Yes,” Mrs. Farewell agreed, “and an orphan.”

“She lives with her Auntie Mo,” Kat said.

“The woman isn’t her aunt,” Mrs. Farewell corrected. “I think she might be a cousin. It’s as Mrs. Crozier says, the girl is simple. She’s been robbed before.”

Irish peasants digging potatoes

Irish peasants digging potatoes.*

“She has?” Kat grew angry. “How many times?”

“She’s not sure, but I would guess at least once a month for over a year, whether hawking watercress, or sprigs of holly, chestnuts – whatever’s available. It’s all the damned Irish filling the rookeries to escape the famine.”

“Famine?” Kat asked.

“There have been some mediocre potato crops in Ireland,” Mrs. Crozier said plainly.

“Anyway,” Mrs. Farewell continued, “the girl accepts the rough treatment as a mystery she can do nothing about. The poor waif has nothing to eat for several days each time it happens, which she also accepts as her lot in life.”

“In a few years the boys won’t just rob her,” Mrs. Crozier asserted. “The Irish peasants possess the lowest standards of morals.”

“What do you mean?” Kat asked.

“Think on it a moment,” Mrs. Farewell advised.

“Oh… my goodness,” Miss Nestor gasped.

Kat didn’t understand. A few years? When she’s thirteen or fourteen? Ooooh… “But she’ll look much younger,” Kat said hopefully.

“That may spare her for awhile,” Mrs. Farewell said, “but she’s a pretty wee miss, with long curly auburn hair, and clear blue eyes.”

“And if it’s not the street boys, there’s plenty an old beast who would pay dear to get his hands on her,” Mrs. Crozier said with a sneer. “Lecherous ghouls in silk suits.”

“My lady doesn’t need to hear such talk!” Miss Nestor interjected.

“This is an invaluable chapter of her education,” the tutor retorted harshly. “Lady Kat must be aware of the dangers that lie outside her door. Then perhaps she’ll learn to practise more caution.”

“What a wretched city this is!” Kat snarled. She took up the poker and jabbed savagely at the heavy iron fireback, resulting unsatisfactorily with a dull clang, a scratch on the family coat of arms, and a jarring of her elbow. Kat took aim at a fire dog, then noticed her decorum matron gliding near and returned the poker carefully to its rack.

“All cities have such troubles,” Mrs. Crozier said. “Where there is man, there is sin.”

“Lord Beaufort waits on you, m’ lady,” Rudman called as he appeared behind Mrs. Farewell in the threshold. “The carriage is a ready. The wortercress girl tarries in the hall.”

Kat hurried to join her father. They had agreed to take Pixie home, and Kat wore her finest travelling suit; a new outfit, tailored perfectly of sage green silk and trimmed with burgundy velvet, the jacket bodice fetchingly snug on her corseted midriff. (At first Isabel helped Kat to don a lavish visiting gown, but Mrs. Crozier deemed it inappropriate for, as she put it, ‘an excursion to some country hovel.’) In a fortnight Kat had grown accustomed to wearing a corset everyday, and appreciated the new wardrobe she was acquiring in London. She thought the garments were stylish and lovely for the city, the corset providing a comfortable foundation for three or more petticoats.

The watercress girl stood silently in a corner of the front hall with her empty basket as Kat descended the stairs.

“I have your shilling,” Kat said, approaching with a smile.

Pixie held up her little tin, then lowered it and stared at the silver coin. “I can’t take that, Miss. Four bunches a penny. Or a ha’penny for less. Or a farthing. Or a half farthings for small bunches, please.”

“This adds up to the same amount,” Kat explained. “More so.”

“If you please, Miss, no. I must have many coins.” Pixie insisted. “My box should be heavy and rattle for Auntie Mo.”

“All right…” Kat turned to her father’s valet. “You heard her? Fetch pennies, halfpennies, farthings, and half farthings, to a total of at least twelve pence. Quickly, please.”

“M’ lady.” Rudman limped down the hall.

Kat moved to the door while smoothing on her kid-skin gloves, Reynold opened it for her, she looked out at the carriage. Her father sat within, but leaned out a window speaking with the driver and groom. She went back to Pixie and made small talk about the unusually dry weather. Rudman returned with a fist full of coins. Pixie accepted them happily, and squeezed the lid of her tin shut tight. They proceeded outside, hand in hand, but the little girl stopped on the pavement.

“I mustn’t ever get in a carriage with a man,” Pixie declared. “I’m a good girl.”

“This is my father, Lord Beaufort,” Kat related gently. “And I’m going with you.”

“The vicar and Auntie Mo told me never to get in a carriage with a man. I’m a good girl.”

“I’m certain you are,” Kat said. “So am I. But this is my father. A peer of the realm. He’s a gentleman.”

“No man. Not even gentlemans.”

“It’s a beautiful afternoon,” Earl Beaufort said while stepping out of the carriage. “I’ll ride with the driver.”

“Thank you, Father.”

Earl Beaufort acted as attendant and offered a hand to Pixie and Kat to climb in the carriage, then they were off. They trundled by Regent’s Park and Camden Town, then on towards Hampstead. Pixie said it took about an hour for her to walk and run, back and forth, twice each day, judging by when church bells rang. She was confused when they entered her village, because the driver took a somewhat different route, but she soon recognised a crossroads, and then her home; a small, low, daub and wattle cottage with an irregular patchwork of rough slate tiles covering drooping roof lines, holes repaired with lengths of timber and rusted metal. Pixie jumped from the carriage and ran inside, the sound of the coins in her tin rattling loudly. By the time Earl Beaufort and Kat reached the gate, the girl came out accompanied by a skinny woman, her face weathered, and hair greying, dressed in a rough cotton shirt, skirt, and apron.

“Who be you?” she asked with an astonished squint.

“John James Beaufort, Earl Beaufort, Madam.” He removed his top hat. “This is my daughter, Lady Katelyn Elizabeth.”

“Mrs. Joe Chapman, yer lordship.” She inclined her head. “Bless me, I never thought… why have you brung our Pixie home?”

Kat quickly described the events of the day, the trials Pixie had suffered, and that she was indeed a good girl who followed instructions and didn’t ride in a carriage with a man. Kat wanted to chastise the woman for not feeding Pixie properly, but wondered if a shortage of food existed for the entire family. Still standing awkwardly at the gate, Kat’s curiosity got the better of her.

“You’re not Pixie’s aunt, are you?”

“No, a cousin, yer highness. She come here from Woodford when her ma died.”

“Do you have children of your own?”

Yeesh, too many!” She chuckled and sighed. “We get by.”

“What is Pixie’s name?”

“Beatrice Evans.” She turned to the girl. “You go in an’ brew some dandelion for us.”

“Yes, Auntie.”

Once Pixie ran inside, Mrs. Chapman lowered her voice.

“She’s addled,” the woman said, “a tomfool. Innocent. No guile. Not made for this world. Thank you for bringing her home. And buying the watercress – most generous. Most days she only sells about a dozen bunches. She is a good girl. The city will eat her one day, and I’ll never see her again. I won’t insult you by asking you in.”

The rough woman had spoken so poignantly, Kat’s vision blurred. She rapidly blinked away her tears and swallowed to clear the lump in her throat.

“Father, you simply must offer Mrs. Chapman the opportunity to place Pixie into service.”

Scullery maids were of the lowest rank within domestic service.

Scullery maids were of the lowest rank within domestic service.

“Pardon?”

“What?”

“A scullery maid,” Kat suggested. “She’s good at simple tasks?”

“Aye.”

“Happy with her work?”

“Aye.”

“Attends church every Sunday and says her prayers.”

“Aye, and does it most fervently. She believes in prayers and angels, poor lamb.”

“There you have it, Father.”

“I do?”

“She’s ideal.” Kat gave a firm nod. “If you agree, we’ll collect her tomorrow.”

“Wait, I–

“What are you saying?” Mrs. Chapman asked. “You’re to take her away? To live in some grand house?”

“Indeed. She’ll have everything she needs and a salary, part of which could be sent to you.” Kat warmed to the idea. “Pixie will love the country. It’s much safer than London. You will be able to see her when we come to Town – every spring at least. I imagine she–

“Katelyn,” Lord Beaufort cut her off. “Let me speak to Mrs. Chapman for a moment. Please wait by the carriage.”

Kat watched the adults talk. Mrs. Chapman brought Pixie from the cottage and Earl Beaufort knelt on one knee to speak with her for a while. Finally, the woman and girl went inside and the earl ambled hesitantly up to his daughter, still holding his hat and fiddling with the brim.

“She’s a sweet child,” he said softly. “I could imagine her being a lovely parlour-maid in time, if she could grasp the finer details. I did offer the position you suggested. Mrs. Chapman certainly recognises the opportunity as extraordinarily rare and valuable… but Miss Beatrice doesn’t want to leave her family. She’ll miss her adopted siblings. They’re the only playmates she’s ever known.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” Kat said softly, reflecting on her idea. “I am impetuous, Father.”

“Hmm, yes, well… the family will try to talk it over with their parish vicar this evening. They might have an answer for us tomorrow.”

“Oh…”

“There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of girls similar to Miss Beatrice in London, Katelyn. You can’t save them.”

“Yes. Please take me home, Father.”

***

Kat rose earlier than usual, padded to a window, threw open the curtains, folded back the shutters, and looked to the street corner where a little watercress girl frequently sold her produce. Pixie stood there, holding up fresh green leafy bunches to passers-by, with her hopeful and vacant expression. Kat wept into the sleeve of her nightgown, her shoulders shaking and throat painfully tight, sobbing with disappointment, imagining horrible events in the girl’s future, then drew the curtains and went back to bed, pulling the sheet over her head.

* By 1847, hundreds of thousands Irish peasants had perished from starvation caused by the potato blight, and a similar number emigrated to various regions of the British Empire and the United States of America. The slums of London and other major English cities were filled with the desperately poor, who were also looked down upon for their Catholicism.

 

 

 

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