Clarence Hightower was one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Queen Victoria’s London, but that distinction came with a terrible price. He took no time in his youth to court a lady and to marry her; now in his middle-age, he found himself too accustomed to his bachelor life to accommodate a woman. In fact, Hightower had no friends at all. His business associates could not be considered friends and he had no social life to speak of. The only person Hightower could consider a friend was the maitre d’ of his favorite restaurant, The Golden Apple, three blocks from his brownstone. Even the people in the restaurant did not want to be near him. The table next to his usual table for one was always empty.
What he shared with the maitre d’ was a wicked sense of humor. One evening, everyone in the restaurant came by his table and shook his hand and smiled broadly. Only when he called for his check did he know why. The maitre d’ had told his customers that the distinguished gentleman in the corner had volunteered to pay for everyone’s dinner. And he did. However, the next night, when his entree was delivered, Hightower stealthily pulled a dead rat from his pocket and slipped it under the silver cover so when the waiter lifted it, Hightower let out a shriek and lifted the dead rodent so all could see. The maitre d’ had to offer free dinners to all in order to placate them.
Now it was Christmas, the loneliest season of the year for Hightower, but he found a new diversion while dining at The Golden Apple. Every night as he ate he watched a small girl, red of cheek and dressed in tatters, looking back at him through the window. As Hightower left the restaurant one night he heard a small voice.
“I hope you enjoyed your dinner, sir.”
“What?” He turned to see the urchin was speaking to him, looking him square in the eye and smiling sweetly.
“I hope the dinner was to your liking, sir.”
“And why shouldn’t it be?” he inquired, a bit taken aback.
“You chewed much too fast and did not smile with each swallow.”
“And you always chew slowly, smile contentedly and sometimes even close your eyes briefly with warm satisfaction.”
“You have nothing better to do with your time than study my face as I eat?” Hightower did not know whether to be indignant or amused.
“No sir, I don’t.”
“So it gives you pleasure to watch me eat.”
“Yes, it does. Isn’t that odd?”
Hightower patted her on the head and walked on his way. The next night he asked for a bag for his leftovers and as he left he handed the bag to the little girl.
“Oh! For me, sir?”
“Yes. The waiter foolishly gave me more chicken than a decent person should eat in one sitting. You will help me out, won’t you?”
“Oh, yes, sir!” She smiled and curtsied.
The next night he did the same and the little girl smiled and curtsied again.
“May I be so bold to ask if you have a home?”
“Yes, you may and no I don’t.”
“May I ask why not?”
“Of course you may. You’ve given me my dinner. The least I can do in return is tell you my parents died in a fire last month and I have been on the streets ever since.”
“Don’t feel sorry for me, sir,” she said. “I have done quite well. People are really quite kind to homeless children. I must admit, however, alleyways are becoming quite chilly this time of year.”
“Why don’t you turn yourself into the board of orphans?”
“Oh, I don’t think I’d like to do that, sir. You never know who they will put you next to in the dormitory. If I’m next to a dreadful person in an alleyway at night I can always skip over a block. But if I’m assigned to a bed, well, you see, I’m in an awkward situation.”
“How old are you?”
“Eight years old. And how old are you?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Sorry, I thought we were playing a question and answer game.”
“What a pleasant age that must be. You don’t have to be beholden to anyone, do you, sir?”
“No, I don’t.” Hightower found the conversation a bit disturbing and out of his control, so he patted her on the head and went on his way.
The third night, he handed her his sack and told her it was lamb.
“Of course, it’s lamb. I watched you eat it, remember?”
“Were you always this impertinent to your parents?” Hightower asked, frowning.
“Yes, I was. My mother said it would be my ruination.”
“Well, I suppose you can’t help it. That’s the way you were born.”
“That’s what I told my mother.”
“What is your name?”
“Oh.” Hightower’s eyes widened. “What a delightful name.”
“No it’s not. Bessie’s all right, but I made up the Ditchwater part. My real last name is Primrose. But that doesn’t seem to fit a child living on the streets now, does it?’
Hightower put his hand to his mouth to disguise a smile. “Perhaps you won’t have to remain Bessie Ditchwater for long.”
“You don’t eat desserts, do you, sir?”
“No, I don’t. Men of my age must restrict their intake of sweets.”
“I do believe you feel sorry for yourself.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You seem ashamed to be a grown up man of forty-eight and resent the fact you can’t have pie and cake. When I am forty-eight I am going to eat all the pie and cake I want because no one would dare tell me no.”
Once again Hightower found himself at a loss for words, patted Bessie on the head and walked home
Christmas Eve, as Hightower ate his beef roast and watched Bessie smiling at him through the window, he made a decision. He was going to adopt her. While he knew the time for romance in his life had passed, he was not too old to become a father. Eventually he would have to make official arrangements with the board of orphans, but on Christmas day he would invite her into the restaurant, have her join him for dinner and tell her she was going to live with him from now on.
“Is there anything else, sir?” the maitre d’ asked.
“Yes,” Hightower replied. “For Christmas dinner tomorrow I want that little girl. She is so tender and sweet.”
“If you say so, sir.”
“I want to start the meal with a mince meat pie, a sweet beginning to a sweet new life.”
“This is quite irregular, sir.”
“I don’t care.”
When he left the restaurant and handed the sack of leftover roast beef to Bessie, Hightower said, “I hope you find a suitable corner in the alleyway, Bessie Ditchwater, I mean Primrose, I mean…”
“I do hope I didn’t offend you last night, sir,” Bessie interrupted him. “It wasn’t very polite to speak so bluntly to the founder of one’s feast.”
“Think nothing of it, child.” He patted her head. “You gave me a proper comeuppance and I appreciate it.”
“Merry Christmas, sir.”
“Merry Christmas, Bessie.”
The next day when Hightower arrived at The Golden Apple, he was disappointed that Bessie was not already standing by the window waiting for him. The restaurant was filled with families celebrating Christmas day. Even the table next to his single, which usually was empty, had a father, mother and child enjoying steaming bowls of soup. After he was seated, Hightower smiled as the maitre d’ arrived with the mince meat pie.
“Where is the little girl?” he asked. “She is usually here by now.”
“She is here, sir,” the maitre d’ said softly.
The maitre d’‘s eyes darted toward the mince meat pie. “Very sweet and tender indeed.”
Hightower’s eyes widened. “What?”
“You said you wanted her for dinner, sir.”
“You—you madman,” Hightower whispered.
“What is a homeless child when it comes to fulfilling every wish of the wealthiest man in town?”
Bending his head, Hightower began to weep. A moment later he felt a small hand on his shoulder.
“Please, sir, don’t cry,” a child’s voice said. “It’s Christmas.”
Hightower looked up. It was the child from the next table. As he looked more closely, he realized it was Bessie.
“This nice man said you wanted me to come live with you,” she said. “I hope he wasn’t teasing me. Do you want to become my father?”
“I don’t understand,” he replied. “Aren’t they your mother and father?”
“They are from the board of orphans,” the maitre d’ said. “We couldn’t let you take the child without official approval from the government, now could we?”
Hightower’s eyes filled with tears as he hugged her. “Yes, I want you to be my little girl.” He pulled her away to look at her. “Now, would you like to have a nice slice of mince meat pie?”