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Samantha ran into her backyard holding a cookie. She had just finished practising the piano. She had piano lessons with Miss Jones every day now, for one whole hour. That hour certainly seemed long so every day she hoped it would finish earlier. She just couldn’t wait to get outside.
Samantha stopped beside the hedge between her house and the Rylands’. Through it now, she could see a girl. The girl was busy hanging laundry in the Rylands’ yard. Had this girl really come to live there?
“Are you Nellie?” she asked.
The girl looked surprised and very shy. “Yes, miss,” she answered. Her brother, Eddie, had said Nellie was nine, but this girl seemed smaller than Samantha. She was very pale and very thin.
“Are you visiting the Rylands?” asked Samantha.
This time Nellie looked amused. “Oh, no, miss. I’m working here,” she said.
Samantha was surprised. Eddie hadn’t said a girl was coming to work. But it didn’t matter. Samantha thought it would be wonderful to make a friend right next door. She remembered the cookie in her hand. “Would you like a cookie?” she asked.
Nellie looked at the Rylands’ house. “Oh, no, miss. I can’t.”
“Won’t they let you?” asked Samantha.
“No, it’s not because of that, miss. I’ve got my job to do,” Nellie answered.
“My name’s Samantha. You don’t have to call me ‘miss’.” Samantha put her cookie down on a stone and reached for a piece of wet laundry. “I’ll help you, Nellie. Then we can have a game of cards.”
“Oh, no, you shouldn’t,” Nellie said. She was embarrassed, but there was nothing she could do to stop her new friend. So instead, she hurried to finish the job before anyone would see Samantha working.
When the last of the laundry was hung, Samantha grabbed Nellie’s hand and pulled her toward the tunnel in the hedge. “We can eat in here. Nobody will see us,” Samantha said. The girls just fit into the hole in the hedge, and Nellie couldn’t say ‘no’ to the wonderful smell of the cookie.
“Why are you working here?” Samantha asked.
Nellie didn’t look at Samantha when she answered. “My father works in a factory in the city, and my mother does the washing. But there are three of us children, you see, and it’s not enough.” She added quietly, “There wasn’t enough food. And there wasn’t enough coal.”
“You mean your parents sent you away? But that’s awful!”
“Oh, no. It’s better here. It really is,” said Nellie. “The Rylands pay my family a dollar a week for the work I do. That’s not as much as I earned in the factory, but in the factory I had to work every day except for Sunday, until dark. And the air was so hot and dusty I started coughing a lot. That’s why my parents let me come here. The air is good, and I don’t have to work so long, and I get good food.” With one finger, she collected the last of the cookie pieces. “Only I don’t get to see my family much.”
Samantha was shocked into silence, but only for a moment. “When do you go to school?” she asked.
“I’ve never been to school,” Nellie said quietly.
Was it possible? This girl had never gone to school? Samantha’s mind raced. “Nellie, I have an idea,” she said. “We can meet here every day, and I’ll teach you. The Rylands won’t miss you for just a little while, and I’ll teach you everything.”
adapted from Meet Samantha by Susan S. Adler