“Matches, sir?…A box of matches, ma’am?…Only three a ha’penny…You’d like some matches, sir, wouldn’t you? –”
Minna tried to keep the desperation out of her voice. You sold more matches if you sounded bright and cheerful. Only it had been such a dreadful day.
Earlier a thick, yellowish fog had begun to gather, turning people to shadows and muffling the low sun; but now the fog had been dispelled by a cold breeze whose chill bit through her worn clothes. Underfoot the pavements were coated with old snow that passing feet had pounded to ice, topped with a layer of slush that had seeped into her cracked boots all day, and every dray and carriage that passed sprayed a mixture of slush and horse manure over the walkway.
I don’t believe I have feet at all, now, she thought, only little pink icicles. I can’t feel my toes at all. She stamped her feet for the thousandth time, it seemed. Tomorrow she would have chilblains, and pulling on her boots would be agony.
And still she had not sold enough matches. Inside her thin coat she shrank into herself at the thought of Uncle Jules’ anger. The sun had set, now, but she would not go home, not yet: not until the lamplighter came. She might sell a few more boxes.
“Matches, sir?” she called again to two men who hurried past without glancing at her.
She peered down the long London street, a deep cleft hemmed in by tall houses, but saw no sign of the lamplighter’s approach. Of all the nights for him to be late! she thought in vexation.
In the house across the street they had lit the gaslights in the two downstairs rooms that she could see. Minna loved the glow the windows shed, but what attracted her most was that it was a Jewish house, with a discreet but unashamed mezuza at the door. During Chanuka, there had been a good-sized menorah in a front window. These were people who took their Yiddishkeit seriously, and this was the reason Minna had chosen just this place to stand to sell her matches. In a small way it brought back memories of better times.
As she gazed at the house, the front door opened and a gentleman emerged. She had seen him on other occasions: an elderly man, tall and spare and dressed in a long dark overcoat and a high top hat that together made him look as black and forbidding as a factory chimney. Framing his face, rather fierce-looking mutton-chop whiskers bristled (his only affectation, though Minna did not know it, aside from a regrettable habit of drinking tea from a saucer when he was alone). His face bore an expression stern enough to match the rest of his appearance. Yet his heart was a kind one.
The gentleman descended the steps and crossed to where Minna stood.
“Will you buy some matches, sir?” she asked hopefully.
“A dozen boxes today,” he responded decisively, as he thrust a hand deep into a pocket for a sixpence. “Never mind the change, child. I can’t be bothered with it.”
Handing over the boxes, Minna laughed. “You always buy such a lot!” she exclaimed. “And so many today!”
“Now, today, I must buy a dozen because if I passed you regularly I should buy a box every day. It has been almost two weeks since I saw you, so I must make up for lost time, you see.” The severe old mouth almost smiled. “And I supply my entire household – for after all, they need matches in the kitchen, too – and my daughter’s, as well. And she has a very large house with a great many fires. So there you have it!” he finished, distributing his purchases around his person. “You keep us all warm. I wish I could do the same for you. The weather’s been frightful, today; you must be chilled to the bone.”
“I can’t even feel my feet any longer,” Minna admitted. “I’d have gone home, but there weren’t many people about today and I haven’t sold enough.”
The old man looked at her keenly. “I thought I gave you a shawl last week, one Mrs Kornhandler had bought for you – or did I forget?”
“Oh, no, you did, sir, and it was lovely, and I felt so wonderfully cozy in it!”
“What happened to it?”
Minna’s eyes slid away from his. “I…I don’t have it any longer.”
“Was it lost?”
Minna shook her head.
“Taken from you?”
“Yes,” Minna admitted with reluctance. “But please don’t be angry,” she added in a rush. “My aunt got a whole sack of coal in exchange, so we were all warm…Please, sir – what is it like, inside that house you just left?” she went on, hoping to distract him but really curious, as well.
“Let’s see…” said the old gentleman obligingly, glad of an excuse to leave the subject of the shawl’s fate, “the rooms are generous, with high ceilings, each one with a great central ceiling-rose. On the floors there are Turkey-carpets and some tartan ones – that’s Her Majesty’s taste, of course, so everybody has tartan rugs – and in the main rooms the wallpaper has a trellis design – I’ve no hand for description or I’d give you more particulars about it. There are pictures on the walls – beautiful scenery and portraits of the family – and all around the public rooms upholstered chairs and sofas and little tables stand about in convenient places.”
“And a fire?” Minna asked wistfully.
“Big coal fires with rounds of apple-wood to scent them,” nodded the gentleman. “It’s warm everywhere. The people are warm, too: only a lady and her little girl living in the house just now, but they’re kind people, with warm hearts. I wish you had a home like that, my dear.”
“I feel warmer just hearing about it,” said Minna stoutly. “And I shall be warm when I get back to my aunt’s house.” From the time she had come to live there, she had refused to call it ‘home’, it was so unlike the home she had left. “And here comes the lamplighter, at last.” She gave a little shrug. “I promised myself I could go home when he arrived.”
“Good-night, then, child.” The tall man gave her a friendly nod and turned to leave.
“Good-night, sir.” As the gentleman moved away, Minna looked up at the sky. Now that the fog had lifted, one star was visible. Half-aloud, Minna said, “The first star!” and, hardly realizing she was saying it, she recited the little rhyme she had said as a child:
“Star light, star bright
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might
Have the wish I wish tonight – Oh, Hashem, please!” she added at the end.
Not quite out of earshot, the elderly gentleman turned back. “Were you wishing on the star, child?”
A little shamefacedly, Minna nodded. “When I was little I used to say it with my mother,” she explained. “She used to say that every star was a sign of a — a kindness of G-d.” For a moment she had faltered, having to translate chesed at short notice. “Imagine! A whole sky full of kindnesses! We used to say the rhyme and laugh, because of course only G-d grants wishes…” Her voice trailed off and her lip trembled for just a moment.
“I see. And what did you wish for?”
“Oh, sir!” Minna exclaimed in mock horror. “If I tell you it won’t come true!”
“How silly of me! I’d forgotten. Well, then, I shall wish on that star, myself…when nobody’s nearby to hear me.” Once again he turned to leave. “What would people think,” he said over his shoulder, “of a respectable solicitor wishing on a star!”
He walked into the darkness, leaving Minna laughing.
At almost the very same moment that Minna was addressing the star, a girl about her age was pushing up the window in an upstairs room of the house with the mezuzah, leaning out, and doing exactly the same. Only the window she had opened was in her old nursery, high at the top of the house, and neither girl knew what the other was doing.
“Ellie! Ellie, where are you?” Mrs Kornhandler’s gentle Italian-accented voice preceded her as she entered the room, carrying a small lamp. “Brrr, it’s freezing in here – Miss Elka Kornhandler! You have the window open! My darling, you really must be more careful! What on earth were you doing?”
Ellie pulled her head in again and shot the sash down. “It was only for a moment, Mama. I was looking out to see if the fog was quite gone, and I saw the first star – oh, I do hope Hashem grants my wish!”
“Of course! I used to do that, myself. What did you wish for?” asked Mrs Kornhandler, setting the lamp down and rushing to wind two shawls around her daughter.
“Mama! You told me yourself! I can’t tell! It won’t come true!” laughed Ellie.
“Oh! You’re quite right! I should have remembered. Such a silly game, but such fun…only do wrap up warmly next time, please, dear. You’ve been ill for so long. Now that you’re getting better you don’t want to fall ill again.”
Ellie sighed. “But I feel perfectly well, now, Mama – and I’m so bored!”
Mrs Kornhandler seated herself on Ellie’s bed with an air of importance. “Then you’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve started looking for a governess for you.”
“Have you? When will she come? What will she look like? Will she teach me everything I’ve been missing?” Ellie flung herself at her mother, scattering the blanket and shawl and very nearly overturning the lamp. “Mama, you’re so good! I shan’t be bored any longer!”
Mrs Kornhandler, who had been as close to overturning as the lamp had been, straightened her lace cap. “Dear me!” she gasped. “I think we had better begin with deportment and self-restraint!” Rising and shaking out her skirts, she added, “What I actually came to tell you, as Leah is busy, is that it’s time to dress for dinner. And as to all your other questions, I have only begun to look for a governess; I have not yet found her!”
At the front of the house, the tall old man picked his way carefully along the slippery pavement until he reached the corner, where he hailed a hansom cab, climbed in, and rode off.
As he settled back against the seat he thought about the match-girl. She had been a surprise, Perhaps there were other surprises? He could not know. Dignified old gentlemen are not commonly in the habit of striking up conversations with children selling matches. But he was sure this child was different – not the street urchin he had expected, but a child who spoke correct, educated English, with none of the beggar’s whine in her voice. Pretty manners she had, too, he reminded himself.
An obscure feeling that something should be done for her came over him. But what? He resolved to discuss the matter with his spinster sister who kept house for him. After supper they always retreated to their comfortable parlor for an hour or two, she on one side of the fire, knitting, while he, seated on the other side of the hearth, read aloud to her from the newspaper. He would broach the topic then. His sister would certainly offer good counsel. He had a great deal of respect for his sister’s deep well of commonsense.
Minna watched the kind old man climb into the cab and disappear into the night, then turned to see the lamplighter approaching from the opposite direction.
“Good evening, Mr Southbury,” she greeted him.
Setting his ladder against the arms of the nearby lamp-post, the lamplighter tipped his greasy cap. “An’ a good evenin’ t’ you,” he said as he climbed up. “Though why I s’y good I daon’t knaow and that’s a fact. I’ve fell twice on that oice, I ‘ave.” Turning on the gas tap, he lit the flame.
“I do hope you weren’t much hurt,” said Minna politely, though it was plain that the lamplighter was essentially undamaged. “How is Mrs. Southbury?”
He came down the ladder. “Aow, the old lydy’s aw right, but if ‘at fog ‘ad settled, wif ‘er chest –”
Leaving the sentence hanging, the lamplighter picked up the ladder, nodded, said “G’night, then, missy,” and passed on to the next lamp, in the same direction the lawyer had taken.
Finally, Minna thought, she might go. As quickly as she could, now that the slush was fast turning to sharp ridges of ice that cut into her broken boots, she hurried along the row of lit street lamps to an area with no lighting at all, a district of narrow, twisting dark alleys clogged with rubbish and overhung by shabby overcrowded houses, loud with the noise of crying children and arguing couples, and permeated with the smell of soups and stews made from the cheapest foodstuffs.
She reached the entrance to one of the narrow houses divided into apartments, and began to climb the three flights of steep shadowy stairs to a door unmarked by a mezuzah. Inside that door, she knew, was a dingy, untidy apartment almost destitute of furniture, with uncurtained windows and a sloping ceiling and a floor of bare boards. The very air was redolent of improvident living and penury and shady dealings.
At least the rooms would be warm, Minna thought as she pushed open the door, stumbled on numb feet into the dimness, unloaded the match-tray that hung around her neck, pulled off her jacket and boots, and shuffled to the fireplace. The fire was only small, but how good it felt when she held her hands out to it! She knew well enough not to try the same thing with her feet: that was how you made chilblains a great deal worse. Still, putting her boots near the fire to warm a little would make them easier to pull on again.
From under her lashes Minna covertly regarded her aunt. She often gazed at her unobserved, trying to see a resemblance between her and her mother. Aside from the nose and something about the chin, there seemed to be little similarity between the dear face she remembered so well and this slatternly young woman in a dress that had seen better days.
Standing to one side, her aunt pushed a few strands of hair out of her face and announced as she stirred thin soup in a pot hung over the flames, “Supper’s late, tonight; I’d a deal of sewing to finish for a good customer. How did you do, today?”
“Nobody wanted to buy,” sighed Minna. “All the big houses bought on Monday when the snow first fell.”
“Uncle won’t be pleased.”
“I know.” Minna shivered. Sometimes Uncle Jules took poor sales calmly; other times, when he’d been drinking, he beat her.
Why had Aunt Beatrice left her loving home and Yiddishkeit for such an unsavory person? Perhaps, Minna thought, when he had not yet been in the habit of drinking so much, and had still had money to dress well, he had cut a handsome figure. And he must have been kind in some way, she mused. Even now, he never complained that Aunt Beatrice insisted on buying kosher meat – when she bought meat at all – though it was so much dearer.