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 evermore.
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?"