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The Child Singer by Laura Fitch


In a narrow dirty street in the most miserable part of the great city of London, a group of children were playing beside the gutter. They were all dirty and ragged, and the faces of many were old and worldly-wise. One little girl, however, though her dress was as torn and soiled as that of any of the other dwellers in the filthy street, had a pretty childish face. She was a bright-looking little one, with matted brown hair hanging in tangled curls that had never known a brush, and a pair of sweet dark eyes looking out trustfully into the uninviting world around her. She stood a little apart from the others, leaning against the doorway of a rickety tenement-house, humming softly to herself.

A rough-looking boy in the group by the gutter, hearing her low tones, called out, "Louder, Nell; sing something."

The child obeyed; with her hands clasped, and her eyes fastened on the speck of blue sky to be seen between the roofs of the tall, smoky houses, she burst into a song. No wonder that the other children stopped their noisy play, and listened. It was not their ignorance of music that made the singing seem beautiful to those little street vagabonds. There was in the clear voice of the child singer a strange, wistful tone, of which she herself was unconscious, but which held the listener spell-bound.

Nell had been born and bred in those low surroundings. She had never seen the inside of a church, or heard other music than the whining tones of a street organ, yet there was in her the very soul of music. She lived in a wretched garret, with a dirty, slouchy woman whom she called aunt, and loved as only a child or a woman can love one from whom she receives no sign of affection. Miserable as such a life was, it might have been worse.

One day Nell's aunt was brought home on a shutter; she had been run over by a carriage, and instantly killed.

Now Nell was indeed destitute; no money, and no friends but her rough neighbors. But these, though rough, were not hard-hearted; they would have given her money, but they had none themselves, except what they earned or stole each day. So they told her, if she wanted her aunt buried properly, she must go out at night and sing, in which way she would very likely earn enough, as people would pity so young a child.

So that night poor little Nell set out on her work of love. She walked till she reached the broad streets and handsome houses that form the London which the world knows. Here she sang. In the clear silent night the childish voice rang out, and the hour and the stillness made its wistful tones sound wild and weird. Up one street and down another the little figure went singing, while its heart seemed breaking. A strange excitement bore her up, and she felt no fatigue.

Her pathetic appeal was not in vain; it seemed to touch the hearts, and, what is more difficult, the pockets, of all who heard her. When midnight came, she thought of stopping only because most of the houses had closed for the night, and there was little more to be obtained. So she took her last stand in front of a fine old house in Kensington Square, in whose windows lights were still burning. It was the home of Barech, the great musician. As the tones of Nell's voice broke on the stillness of the night, he paused in the work he was doing, and after a moment rose and threw open the window. With amazement he saw the little childish figure standing in the light of the street lamp, and while his artist's ear drank in the wonderful tones with delight, his fatherly heart filled with pity for the desolate child. When Nell ceased, he called to her, and descending, opened the door and took her in.

From that moment Nell was no longer destitute, no longer friendless. In Barech she had found a friend who never deserted her. Captivated by her voice, he took the little waif into his heart and home, and thenceforth she was protected, cared for, and educated. And he was amply rewarded when, in after-years, the fame of Helen Barech spread over England. No one then ever dreamed that the great singer began her career years ago, one dark night, under the stars, a little outcast singing for money to bury her dead.