January, 1816 was no time to be selling milk. Polly Green struggled her way over London’s icy paving stones before the sun had so much as smudged the sky with gray, carrying milk canisters suspended from a wooden yoke worn across her shoulders. So far, no customers had paid to make the canisters any lighter.
This morning, when the frozen air seemed to steal the breath out of her lungs, she made do by wearing every scrap of clothing she had. Her collection was not very impressive: four light petticoats and one heavy one, two-and-a-half pairs of stockings, and two of everything else. Still, she soldiered on through streets that were only patchily lit, calling out her unheeded cry: "Milk! Milk below!"
As she descended toward a darkened hill, she heard another voice, this one resonant and male, crying, "Old clothes! Old clothes!" The clarity of the call was startling; most old clothes dealers found their words slurring together after crying them a hundred times an hour and ended up shouting some variation on "Ogh Clo!" Yet this man seemed to be particular about his call, as if being a rag picker was a position of pride.
Polly did not normally enter the tenement neighborhood from which the man was calling – there were not enough customers there and too much capacity for trouble. However, curiosity and cold lured her down the slippery hill, toward moldering half-timbered houses and street hollows filled with suspicious-looking, frozen green scum. Maybe the man had a decent wool shawl or passable heavy petticoat that might help her through the rest of her seventeen-mile route.
At the hill’s absolute nadir was a large oil lamp that burned brightly even as the night wore on to dawn. Its comparative brilliance showed the tiny pellets of ice that were blowing on the wind, and the figure of the old clothes man with his cart.
To Polly’s shock, she saw that the clothes vendor was dressed in crimson velvet and snowy lace, cut in a fashion two centuries out of date. The lamplight turned the embroidered gold trim on his doublet to sparkling fire, and flashed off similar decorations on the wide bows of his garters and shoe ribbons. He had a neat, narrow mustache and a pointed beard like a well-manicured goat’s. A broad, round-brimmed hat adorned with a waterfall of an ostrich feather completed his outfit. If the cold were tormenting him, Polly couldn’t tell.
"Old clothes!" he called again, in an accent that was perhaps a little old fashioned but still clear and deep-throated as the sound of a church bell floating upon the still air. In his cart was what looked like fold upon fold of thick fabric. Better than she’d expected but the few copper bits in her pocket were unlikely to buy anything substantial.
Coming to a sudden decision, she ducked down a narrow lane that ran between two windowless houses and emerged into an eye-wateringly foul court.
The area by the pig enclosure was cleanest, and Polly took refuge there as she hurriedly removed the two lightest of her underskirts, thinking they might do in exchange for something heavier. When she returned to the street, the old clothes man was still there, and she shyly offered up a skirt of faded indigo fustian and one of red and gray calico stripes.
For some reason, the man seemed especially taken by the calico. He ran the thin fabric through his fingers and said, "Fine cloth, mistress. Fine. And I think I can find something that will suit you very well."
Polly drew breath to protest that she hadn’t even told him what she wanted, but he very quickly bundled up something that shone blue and cream with flashes of silver, and then deposited the whole parcel in her arms. It felt weighty enough to be warm.
The light pooled like liquid upon the cloth, and Polly realized she was looking at sky-colored satin edged with silver embroidery. She gasped, ready to point out the mistake. The man no longer seemed interested in her, however, and he cut her off with his cry, "Old clothes!" before pushing his cart away up the hill.
The wind was vicious, and Polly was already missing her two traded underskirts. Praying that her new outfit wouldn’t get her marked as a thief, she walked carefully back into the darkened courtyard. Pulling on the extra layers required struggling, but when she was done, the new clothes hung like fairy glamour over the old.
When she returned to the street, grayish dawn light was visible over the rooftops of the opposite buildings. Strangely, the submerged pavement seemed better drained.
. Then she looked up and stared, shocked, at the world she had exited into. The tenement behind her had become a butcher shop, and the wife of the establishment was setting out the day’s wares on shutters set up across sawhorses. Wagon drivers in doublets, loose breeches, and knee garters carefully led their horses over smooth, clear ice.
A little boy dressed much like the men ran up to her and asked, "Call you a sedan chair, miss?" Polly nodded numbly, and dropped a penny into his grubby palm. He ran off, skidding on the ice, and soon returned with two burly men carrying an enclosed chair between them.
"Where to, miss?" asked the man in the front.
As if caught up in a chilly, beautiful dream, Polly just shook her head and said, "Anywhere you like."
The man gave her a strange look but lowered the chair and opened the door for her. Polly left her milk and yoke by the side of the street. The inside of the sedan chair was nearly warm as she gazed out the window at an old London and a new life.