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Dr Simon Redfern, strolling in Hyde Park, stopped to watch the young lady with the children. They looked healthy and well dressed, and were playing a complicated game of tag, running round and round, shrieking with laughter in which the young lady played a full part. She seemed too young to be the children's mother and he concluded she was perhaps a nursemaid or a governess, but if she was, she was unlike any nursemaid he had ever met, because she was completely uninhibited, holding her pretty muslin skirt up with one hand and displaying a neat turn of ankle. In his experience, nursemaids and governesses were sticklers for correct behaviour.
As he watched, an open carriage drew up and the four children abandoned their game and ran to it, scrambling in beside an elegant lady who was evidently their mother. She had a few words with the young lady and then drove off. The governess, if that was what she was, picked up a parcel from the ground where she had evidently left it while she played, and walked on alone.
Kate had declined Elizabeth's offer to be taken up because she was on her way to Hookham's library and could easily reach it on foot. She was out of breath from running with the children and her cheeks had a rosy glow that her grandmother would deprecate but which made her look very attractive. She tucked strands of her nut-brown hair into the coil on the back of her head from which they had escaped and replaced her bonnet, which had slipped down on its ribbons. She had no idea what she looked like and walked down to the Serpentine to use the water as a mirror.
'Oh, my goodness.' The reflection that looked back at her was unladylike in the extreme. She was flushed, her hair was untidy and the ribbon securing her bonnet was crushed into a sad pretence at a bow. She tried to straighten it and it was then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the child, sitting on the edge of the lake, with his little legs dangling over the water. He could not have been more than three or four years old and was dressed in filthy rags and had nothing on his feet at all. She looked about for his parents or someone looking after him, but there was no one that she could see. It was up to her to rescue him before he fell in. Not wanting to startle him, she moved slowly and then grabbed him from behind.
He started to squirm and yell and it was all she could do to hold him. 'Hush,' she said. 'I won't hurt you.' But he screamed the more and pulled the brim of her half-tied bonnet down over her eyes.
'Allow me.' Her burden was taken from her and she swung round to face the gentleman who had spoken, pushing her bonnet back as she did so. He tucked the child under his arm. 'If you do not leave off that noise, you will feel my hand on your rump,' he told him, with a pretence at severity. The child looked up at the man and, deciding he probably meant it, subsided into silence.
The man was, Kate judged, about twenty-seven or -eight, a little above average height, dressed in a plain brown frockcoat and leather breeches tucked into brown boots. His starched muslin cravat was tied in a simple knot. Not one of the haut monde, she decided, but definitely not the child's papa. He was holding the lad firmly as if he were used to dealing with recalcitrant children, so perhaps he was a schoolmaster. He was a very handsome schoolmaster, if he was.
'I thought he might fall in,' she said, looking about her, as much to avoid the amused gaze of his grey eyes as to ascertain that no one was claiming the child. 'He seems to be all alone.'
'Do you know who he is?'
'No, do you?'
'No. We had better try to find out.' He fetched the child out from under his arm and stood him on the ground and, without letting go of him, squatted down beside him, so that he was able to talk to him on his own level. 'Now, you imp, can you tell us your name?'
The boy knuckled his eyes, depositing more dirt on an already filthy face. 'Joe.'
'Well, Joe, we should like to know where you live.'
Without speaking, the boy pointed in the general direction of the park gate.
'That is not much help. Can you take me to your home?'
This was answered with a silent look of incomprehension.
'Judging by his clothes, he must come from a very poor area,' Kate said. 'How did he get here?'
'I imagine he walked.' He looked up at Kate, standing hesitantly beside him. The expression of concern on her lovely face did her credit, he decided; not many young ladies would bother about a little urchin and would certainly never think of touching one. 'Do not look so worried, miss, I will take charge of him, if you have other things to do.'
Kate hesitated. How did she know this man was trustworthy? And supposing he could not find the child's parents, what would he do? London was a huge place and the boy's little legs must have carried him quite a long way if he lived in the rookeries of the city, which his ragged clothes indicated he almost certainly did. 'What are you going to do with him?'
'Try to find his parents.'
'That is a good question,' he said, noting her wariness. 'I shall take him to the areas where I think he may be known and ask if anyone recognises him.'
'It will be like looking for a needle in a haystack.'
'Probably. Have you a better idea?'
'No. But will you be safe?'
'Oh, I think so,' he said. 'I am a doctor, you see, and sometimes I have to venture into places that respectable young ladies can know nothing of.'
'Of course I know of them,' she said sharply. 'I do not go about with my head in the sand.'
He looked down at the boy, now contentedly sucking his thumb, the only bit of him that was clean, and looking from one to the other, as if wondering which one to cling to. 'You want to go home to your ma and pa, don't you, my lad?'
'Are you sure you wish to take responsibility for him?' Kate asked. 'After all, it was I who picked him up.'
The child had tugged at her heartstrings and his welfare was important to her, as was the welfare of all children, whoever they were, rich or poor. She couldn't help it; if she saw a child needing help, she must do what she could. It had got her into trouble with her grandmother on more than one occasion. 'Giving to the poor is one thing,' she had said. 'I applaud that in you, but to touch them is entirely another. You never know what you might pick up. And you will get yourself talked about.' None of which discouraged her.
'What would you do if I left him with you?' he asked.
'The same as you, I expect, try to find his parents.'
His question gave her a moment's pause, but she was not going to admit she was floored. 'Talk to the boy,' she said. 'Gain his trust, ask him to take me to his home, as you have done.'
'You think you can go into the slums knocking on doors?'
'I would if I had to.'
'I do not doubt it, but you would soon be in trouble. No, I think you should leave it to me.'
'Very well, but if you do not mind, I will come with you.'
'I do not think that is a good idea, Miss…' He paused, waiting for her to supply a name.
'I am not a miss. I am Mrs Meredith and I am not a delicate flower, nurtured in a hot house, so you may take that condescending smile from your face.'
'I beg your pardon, ma'am. Doctor Simon Redfern, at your service.' He doffed his hat and swept her an exaggerated bow, which made her laugh. It was a pleasant sound and, in spite of himself, had him smiling in response.
'So, Dr Redfern, let us see where this young man leads us, shall we?'
'I think you will regret it.'
'I will regret it if I leave him.'
'Why? Do I look like an abuser of infants?'
She looked up into his face and felt herself colouring to think that he had so quickly taken her up on what she said. She hadn't meant that, had she? On the other hand, just because a man dressed like a gentleman and had a smile that would melt ice, did not mean he was not capable of wickedness. But she did not want to believe that of him. 'I am sorry,' she said. 'It is only that I feel responsible and I cannot rest until I know he is safely back home.' She looked down at Joe, who was looking bemused rather than afraid. He was thinner than he ought to be, but he was not cowed. Life had already taught him some harsh lessons. Taking his hand, she asked gently, 'Will you show us where you live?'
Simon gave a grunt of a laugh. 'On your head be it.' He could no more abandon her than she could the child.
He fell into step beside her. She was talking cheerfully to the boy, though she received no reply except a pointed finger, which might or might not have been meant to indicate a direction. When she asked him if they were going the right way, he nodded.
'I do not think he knows where he is,' Simon said, as the boy led them from the park and down to the river where the mudlarks paddled, picking up flotsam and jetsam to sell. He called out to the scavengers, asking them if they recognised the child, but they shook their heads. 'It is a long shot, but we could try Covent Garden,' he said. 'Unless you would rather I took him on alone?'
'No. I have come this far, I am not leaving now. His mama must be frantic with worry.'
'If she has even missed him.'
'How cynical you are!'
'With good cause. You cannot know the half of it.'
She wondered what he meant, but decided not to comment. By this time the child's little legs were too tired to carry on, so Simon hoisted him on to his shoulders, apparently unconcerned about the dirt being transferred to his good clothes. Kate walked purposefully beside him, determined to stay with him.
'Supposing we cannot find his parents, what shall we do?' she asked.
'I shall have to take him to a home which looks after destitute children.'
'Do you mean the Foundling Hospital?'
'No, that only takes the children of unmarried mothers and only then if the mother can be enabled to find work and redeem herself. I am thinking of the Hartingdon Home.'
'Hartingdon?' she queried in surprise.
'Yes. Do you know of it?'
'No, but can it have anything to do with Earl Hartingdon?'
'Not the Earl, but his daughter. Lady Eleanor is its main benefactor, through a charitable trust. Why, do you know her?'
'We are distantly related,' she said with a wry smile. She did not know Eleanor well and, on the few family occasions when they met, she had found the lady aloof and distant. She could not imagine her stooping to handle an urchin such as she had just rescued and spoiling her fashionable clothes. 'I did not know she had given her name to an orphanage.'
'It is more than an orphanage. It is the headquarters of The Society for the Welfare of Destitute Children. We also find foster homes for some of the children.'
'We?' she queried.
'I am one of its trustees and, though we take children into the Hartingdon when there is no help for it, I firmly believe that a loving home is far more beneficial to a child's well-being than an institution.'
'A loving home, yes, but how many foster homes are? You hear such dreadful tales about foster mothers beating and starving the children in their care and not only in London. The countryside is as bad, if not worse. I cannot understand why the women do the job if they have no feeling for children.'
'It is a way of earning a few pence,' he said. 'And it can be done in conjunction with looking after their own.'
'But that is half the trouble. If it comes to a choice between feeding their own or feeding the foster child, there is no question who will come first, is there?' She spoke with such feeling, he looked sharply at her and wondered what had brought it about. 'Did you know that less than half the children sent out like that survive?'
'Yes, I did,' he said quietly. 'I deplore the practice of sending little children away from home to be fostered, just as much as you do, Mrs Meredith. The gentry do it in order not to have a troublesome baby on their hands, but they are usually careful to choose a woman who is known to them and whom they can trust. At the other end of the scale there are poverty-stricken mothers, with no husbands, or husbands that cannot be brought to book, who cannot cope with unwanted children and farm them out for a few pence a week. That is where the trouble lies.'
It was coming upon one such foster mother quite by accident that had set Simon on the course he had taken. The war against Napoleon had ended and he had been making his way to Grove Hall, his uncle's estate, simply because it was the only home he had known; until he set up an establishment of his own, there was nowhere else to go.
He had stopped for refreshment at a wayside inn and was sitting outside in the evening sunshine enjoying a quart of ale while his horse was fed, watered and rested, when he saw three small children being driven along the road by what he could only describe as a hag. The children were in rags and the woman was filthy. She had them tied to each other by a rope, and was hauling them along like cattle. She stopped in the inn yard, tied the children to a rail normally used for tethering horses and went inside.