If you have not read Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens I would highly recommend you do and you will come across Good Mrs Brown.
One of the most despicable characters Good Mrs Brown is an elderly rag dealer who briefly kidnaps the young Florence from a street crowd and steals her fine clothes. She only refrains from cutting off Florence’s hair because she has a daughter of her own who’s ‘far away’, a piece of foreshadowing for the appearance of Alice later in the book. She greedily provides Mr Dombey with Rob the Grinder’s information on where his wife and Mr Carker the Manager have fled.
In this scene, you Miss Florence Dombey has been separated from her Nanny, Miss Susan Nipper.
‘With a wild confusion before her, of people running up and down, and shouting, and wheels running over them, and boys fighting, and mad bulls coming up, and the nurse in the midst of all these dangers being torn to pieces, Florence screamed and ran. She ran till she was exhausted, urging Susan to do the same; and then, stopping and wringing her hands as she remembered they had left the other nurse behind, found, with a sensation of terror not to be described, that she was quite alone.
‘Susan! Susan!’ cried Florence, clapping her hands in the very ecstasy of her alarm. ‘Oh, where are they? where are they?’
‘Where are they?’ said an old woman, coming hobbling across as fast as she could from the opposite side of the way. ‘Why did you run away from ’em?’
‘I was frightened,’ answered Florence. ‘I didn’t know what I did. I thought they were with me. Where are they?’
The old woman took her by the wrist, and said, ‘I’ll show you.’
She was a very ugly old woman, with red rims round her eyes, and a mouth that mumbled and chattered of itself when she was not speaking. She was miserably dressed, and carried some skins over her arm. She seemed to have followed Florence some little way at all events, for she had lost her breath; and this made her uglier still, as she stood trying to regain it: working her shrivelled yellow face and throat into all sorts of contortions.
Florence was afraid of her, and looked, hesitating, up the street, of which she had almost reached the bottom. It was a solitary place — more a back road than a street — and there was no one in it but her-self and the old woman.
‘You needn’t be frightened now,’ said the old woman, still holding her tight. ‘Come along with me.’
‘I— I don’t know you. What’s your name?’ asked Florence.
‘Mrs Brown,’ said the old woman. ‘Good Mrs Brown.’
‘Are they near here?’ asked Florence, beginning to be led away.
‘Susan ain’t far off,’ said Good Mrs Brown; ‘and the others are close to her.’
‘Is anybody hurt?’ cried Florence.
‘Not a bit of it,’ said Good Mrs Brown.
The child shed tears of delight on hearing this, and accompanied the old woman willingly; though she could not help glancing at her face as they went along — particularly at that industrious mouth — and wondering whether Bad Mrs Brown, if there were such a person, was at all like her.
They had not gone far, but had gone by some very uncomfortable places, such as brick-fields and tile-yards, when the old woman turned down a dirty lane, where the mud lay in deep black ruts in the middle of the road. She stopped before a shabby little house, as closely shut up as a house that was full of cracks and crevices could be. Opening the door with a key she took out of her bonnet, she pushed the child before her into a back room, where there was a great heap of rags of different colours lying on the floor; a heap of bones, and a heap of sifted dust or cinders; but there was no furniture at all, and the walls and ceiling were quite black.
The child became so terrified the she was stricken speechless, and looked as though about to swoon.
‘Now don’t be a young mule,’ said Good Mrs Brown, reviving her with a shake. ‘I’m not a going to hurt you. Sit upon the rags.’
Florence obeyed her, holding out her folded hands, in mute supplication.
‘I’m not a going to keep you, even, above an hour,’ said Mrs Brown. ‘D’ye understand what I say?’
The child answered with great difficulty, ‘Yes.’
‘Then,’ said Good Mrs Brown, taking her own seat on the bones, ‘don’t vex me. If you don’t, I tell you I won’t hurt you. But if you do, I’ll kill you. I could have you killed at any time — even if you was in your own bed at home. Now let’s know who you are, and what you are, and all about it.’
The old woman’s threats and promises; the dread of giving her offence; and the habit, unusual to a child, but almost natural to Florence now, of being quiet, and repressing what she felt, and feared, and hoped; enabled her to do this bidding, and to tell her little history, or what she knew of it. Mrs Brown listened attentively, until she had finished.
‘So your name’s Dombey, eh?’ said Mrs Brown.
‘I want that pretty frock, Miss Dombey,’ said Good Mrs Brown, ‘and that little bonnet, and a petticoat or two, and anything else you can spare. Come! Take ’em off.’
Florence obeyed, as fast as her trembling hands would allow; keeping, all the while, a frightened eye on Mrs Brown. When she had divested herself of all the articles of apparel mentioned by that lady, Mrs B. examined them at leisure, and seemed tolerably well satisfied with their quality and value.
‘Humph!’ she said, running her eyes over the child’s slight figure, ‘I don’t see anything else — except the shoes. I must have the shoes, Miss Dombey.’
Poor little Florence took them off with equal alacrity, only too glad to have any more means of conciliation about her. The old woman then produced some wretched substitutes from the bottom of the heap of rags, which she turned up for that purpose; together with a girl’s cloak, quite worn out and very old; and the crushed remains of a bonnet that had probably been picked up from some ditch or dunghill. In this dainty raiment, she instructed Florence to dress herself; and as such preparation seemed a prelude to her release, the child complied with increased readiness, if possible.
In hurriedly putting on the bonnet, if that may be called a bonnet which was more like a pad to carry loads on, she caught it in her hair which grew luxuriantly, and could not immediately disentangle it. Good Mrs Brown whipped out a large pair of scissors, and fell into an unaccountable state of excitement.
‘Why couldn’t you let me be!’ said Mrs Brown, ‘when I was contented? You little fool!’
‘I beg your pardon. I don’t know what I have done,’ panted Florence. ‘I couldn’t help it.’
‘Couldn’t help it!’ cried Mrs Brown. ‘How do you expect I can help it? Why, Lord!’ said the old woman, ruffling her curls with a furious pleasure, ‘anybody but me would have had ’em off, first of all.’ Florence was so relieved to find that it was only her hair and not her head which Mrs Brown coveted, that she offered no resistance or entreaty, and merely raised her mild eyes towards the face of that good soul.
‘If I hadn’t once had a gal of my own — beyond seas now-that was proud of her hair,’ said Mrs Brown, ‘I’d have had every lock of it. She’s far away, she’s far away! Oho! Oho!’
Mrs Brown’s was not a melodious cry, but, accompanied with a wild tossing up of her lean arms, it was full of passionate grief, and thrilled to the heart of Florence, whom it frightened more than ever. It had its part, perhaps, in saving her curls; for Mrs Brown, after hovering about her with the scissors for some moments, like a new kind of butterfly, bade her hide them under the bonnet and let no trace of them escape to tempt her. Having accomplished this victory over herself, Mrs Brown resumed her seat on the bones, and smoked a very short black pipe, mowing and mumbling all the time, as if she were eating the stem.
When the pipe was smoked out, she gave the child a rabbit-skin to carry, that she might appear the more like her ordinary companion, and told her that she was now going to lead her to a public street whence she could inquire her way to her friends. But she cautioned her, with threats of summary and deadly vengeance in case of disobedience, not to talk to strangers, nor to repair to her own home (which may have been too near for Mrs Brown’s convenience), but to her father’s office in the City; also to wait at the street corner where she would be left, until the clock struck three. These directions Mrs Brown enforced with assurances that there would be potent eyes and ears in her employment cognizant of all she did; and these directions Florence promised faithfully and earnestly to observe.
At length, Mrs Brown, issuing forth, conducted her changed and ragged little friend through a labyrinth of narrow streets and lanes and alleys, which emerged, after a long time, upon a stable yard, with a gateway at the end, whence the roar of a great thoroughfare made itself audible. Pointing out this gateway, and informing Florence that when the clocks struck three she was to go to the left, Mrs Brown, after making a parting grasp at her hair which seemed involuntary and quite beyond her own control, told her she knew what to do, and bade her go and do it: remembering that she was watched.
With a lighter heart, but still sore afraid, Florence felt herself released, and tripped off to the corner. When she reached it, she looked back and saw the head of Good Mrs Brown peeping out of the low wooden passage, where she had issued her parting injunctions; likewise the fist of Good Mrs Brown shaking towards her. But though she often looked back afterwards — every minute, at least, in her nervous recollection of the old woman — she could not see her again.