Today's Reading

Mariah released Sophie's hand and they each took a handle of the trunk to carry it into the house. They walked through the shop that had only five clocks on display, a cluttered table, and a man with a wooden leg sleeping in a chair. He wore a sailor's coat and looked like a rumpled pirate. A door from the shop led to a staircase and a kitchen, which was the only other room on the main floor of the house. She saw a table with dirty dishes on it and four chairs that did not match.

They set their trunk on the floor, unsure what to do with it. Mariah wrinkled her nose; something smelled 'very' unpleasant. She looked behind the door and saw two dirty little girls eyeing her doll, Lydia, in wonder. Mariah guessed the oldest girl was three and the younger girl about a year old—her nappy was probably dirty. They reminded Mariah of Edmund, and she wished she had thought to bring the sketch of him with her.

"Should we take the trunk to our room?" Mariah asked.

"There's a mattress in the attic you can share for now, and no more of your fancy airs," Mrs. Ellis said, spitting on the already dirty floor. "You're a pair of charity cases that ought to be thrown on the parish, and that's exactly what I'll do if you give me any trouble. Now, tell me you're grateful to me for taking you in when no one else wanted you."

"Thank you, Mrs. Ellis, for taking us in," Mariah said, then nudged Sophie with her elbow.

"Thank you," her sister muttered.

Mrs. Ellis smiled, and Mariah noticed that her two front teeth were gray. "I can tell by your pretty little hands that you've never done a day's work. Well, that'll change right now. You," she barked, pointing at Mariah, "take care of my girls, and you"—she pointed to Sophie—"scrub the kitchen. There's a shared pump with a bucket in the back. I'm going to take your trunk to the pawn shop and see what your things will fetch—not nearly enough to pay for your keep, I reckon. Now, hand over your fancy dolls."

Mariah's arm tightened around Lydia. She didn't want another thing that she loved taken away from her. She glanced at Mrs. Ellis's dirty children, who were holding on to her skirt. "Might we give our dolls to your daughters?"

Sophie immediately handed her unwanted doll to the older girl—it was no sacrifice for her. The little girl's face lit up and Mariah felt a twinge of pity for her.

Mrs. Ellis held out her hand for Mariah's doll. Mariah hugged Lydia one last time and handed it to her. Mrs. Ellis then ripped Sophie's doll out of her daughter's hand. "They need food, not fripperies."

Both little girls began to cry. Mariah's already broken heart cracked further for these unloved little girls, but Mrs. Ellis appeared unmoved.

"The big one is Agnes and the baby is Sarah," Mrs. Ellis said. "I want them both cleaned up by the time I return."

"Yes, ma'am."

Mrs. Ellis set the dolls on top of the trunk and carried them both out the kitchen door. Mariah picked up the crying baby and felt wetness on her hand. The smell up close was unbearable. She'd never changed a nappy before, but she'd watched Nurse change Edmund. It couldn't be that difficult, could it?

"I'd better start cleaning the kitchen," Sophie said, her hand in her pocket. She was clearly hiding something, which was smart if she wanted to keep it. Mariah watched her walk out the back door and pick up a bucket to fetch water. Mariah was going to need water, too, if she was going to clean up the little girls.

The rest of the afternoon and evening passed in a blur for Mariah. Her hands ached from scrubbing out the dirty nappies, and the small bowl of soup she'd eaten for dinner did not even begin to curb her hunger.

When they were finally sent to bed for the night, she took Sophie's hand and together they climbed the stairs, up the ladder, and into the attic. They had no gas lamp or candle, so they had to feel their way along in the dark.

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