I shall never forget the scene inside. I think it must have left a scar on my brain, for I see it now in every detail—the little dark compartment; the high counter; the shelves at the back full of parcels, like those of a left-luggage room at a railway station; the heavy, baggy, big-faced man in shirt-sleeves with a long cigar held between his teeth at the corner of his frothy mouth; and then my own hurried breathing; my thin fingers opening the tissue paper and holding out the miniature; the man’s coarse hands fumbling it; his casual air as he looked at it and cheapened it, as if it had been a common thing scarcely worthy of consideration.
“What’s this ’ere old-fashion’d thing? Portrait of your great-grandmother? Hum! Not ’arf bad-looking fice, neither.”
I think my eyes must have been blazing like hot coals. I am sure I bit my lips (I felt them damp and knew they were bleeding) to prevent myself from flinging out at the man in spite of my necessity. But I did my best to control my trembling mouth, and when he asked me how much I wanted on the miniature I answered, with a gulp in my throat:
“Two pounds ten, if you please, sir.”
“Couldn’t do it,” said the pawnbroker.
I stood speechless for a moment, not knowing what to say next, and then the pawnbroker, with apparent indifference, said:
“I’ll give you two ten for it out and out.”
“You mean I am to sell . . .”
“Yus, take it or leave it, my dear.”
It is no use saying what I suffered at that moment. I think I became ten years older during the few minutes I stood at that counter.
But they came to an end somehow, and the next thing I knew was that I was on my way back to Ilford; that the damp air had deepened into rain; that miserable and perhaps homeless beings, ill-clad and ill-fed, were creeping along in the searching cold with that shuffling sound which bad boots make on a wet pavement; and that I was telling myself with a fluttering heart that the sheltering wings of my beautiful mother in heaven had come to cover my child.
On reaching the Olivers’, hot and breathless, I put three gold coins, two sovereigns and a half-sovereign, on to the table to pay off the broker’s men.
They had been settling themselves for the night, and looked surprised and I thought chagrined, but took up the money and went away.
As they were going off one of them called me to the door, and in the little space at the foot of the stairs he said, tipping his fingers towards the cot:
“If that’s your kiddie, miss, I recommend you to get it out o’ this ’ere place quick—see?”
I stayed an hour or two longer because I was troubled about baby’s cough; and before I left, being still uneasy, I did what I had never done before—wrote my address at the Jew’s house, so that I could be sent for if I was ever wanted.