Friday was fish day, and Emily always went to the market with her mother on Fridays to buy their supper. Today Emily’s mother had given her a penny to buy a sugar cake. The two of them walked down the narrow streets because Mother couldn’t afford to hire a carriage. But Emily didn’t mind. She enjoyed swinging the grocery basket, watching the ladies sweep by in their long skirts, and hearing the clobble-clobble of horse hooves.
A boy selling newspapers yelled, “Read all about it!”
Emily glanced at the date on the newspaper as they passed by—October 14, 1865.
“Mama!” she cried. “Tomorrow’s Papa’s birthday!”
“I know,” Mother said. “I’m going to make his favorite dish for his birthday supper—steak-and-kidney pie.”
“But what about me?” Emily asked. “What can I give him?”
“You could read to him,” Mother suggested. “He loves listening to you read Mr. Dickens’s stories. He says it’s very restful after a long day in the mill.”
“But I can read to him anytime,” Emily said. Then she remembered the penny in her hand. What can I buy for a penny? she wondered.
When they arrived at the market, Emily felt a rush of excitement. The stalls were filled with all kinds of things! Fishmongers swiftly cleaned fresh fish with their flashing silver knives. A baker held his stick of piping hot sugar cakes high in the air.
“Run along,” Mother said. “But meet me in an hour by the greengrocer’s stall.”
Emily raced off. Seeing a hurdy-gurdy man playing his organ-grinder, she laughed when a monkey in a tiny red jacket held out his tin cup. But she didn’t stop to listen because she wanted to hold on to her penny.
There must be something I can buy for Papa’s birthday, she thought.
Dogs darted in and out of the crowd. She remembered how much Papa admired collies. “I’d love to own one,” he had said. “But it’s hard to keep a dog in the city. One of these days—if we’re lucky—we’ll move to the country.”
Papa’s always saying that, Emily thought. If only my penny could buy us a cottage in the country—one with a white fence around it and a little garden!
But Emily was only day-dreaming, and it was almost time to meet her mother. Emily’s wandering had taken her to the end of Market Street. As she turned to go back, something caught her eye. The last stall stood apart from the others. Behind a counter filled with spices and strange-looking vegetables was an old Oriental man. He wore a golden satin jacket with a high collar, and on his feet was a pair of embroidered slippers the same color as his jacket.
Those slippers! Emily wanted a pair just like them for Papa. She imagined him sitting in front of the fire with his slippered feet propped up while she read to him from Mr. Dickens’s stories.
She walked up boldly to the Chinaman’s stall. “Excuse me,” she said. “Where did you buy those slippers you’re wearing?”
“My daughter-in-law makes slippers,” he replied in a papery-dry voice. “Very fine.”
“Yes, they are,” Emily agreed. “I would like to buy a pair like them for my papa’s birthday.”
The old man smiled. “Ah, a present for your papa. Well, little missy, how much money do you have?”
Emily held out her penny.
The Chinaman’s smile was not so wide now. “Oh, my,” he said. “My daughter-in-law charges much more than that. She uses the finest satin, and she spends many hours embroidering.”
“That’s all right,” Emily said, turning away to hide her disappointment. Her elbow knocked over a little cage on the counter.
“I’m sorry!” she cried, setting the tiny bamboo cage upright again. She smiled when she saw what was inside. “A cricket! Why do you have a cricket in a cage?” she asked.
The old man replied, “It makes very fine music. In China emperors keep crickets in cages made of ivory or jade. But for Li-Fu, bamboo is just as fine. When my cricket sings, it reminds me of my home.”
A cricket! Emily tried hard to remember something she had read …
She offered her penny again. “I know it’s not much, Mr. Li-Fu, but I would love to give this cricket to my papa for his birthday.”
The old man thought for a moment. “Done!” he said finally. He handed Emily the tiny cage.
“The cage too?” she asked.
“It is the cricket’s home. Consider it a present from me.”
Smiling her thanks, Emily pressed the penny into his wrinkled palm. Then, carefully carrying the cage, she hurried to find her mother.
The next night Emily couldn’t sit still through supper. She picked at her steak-and-kidney pie until Father said, “You’re bursting with a secret, Emily. What is it?”
Emily ran out of the room and returned with her hands hidden behind her back.
“Happy Birthday, Papa!” With one hand she presented him with the tiny cage.
“What on earth?” He stared at the cricket in the bamboo cage.
With her other hand, Emily revealed a book and flipped it open. “Your gift is explained in one of Mr. Dickens’s stories. See? Right here it says, ‘A cricket on the hearth is the luckiest thing in the world.’”
“Mr. Dickens is usually right,” Papa said. “We’ll keep our lucky cricket here by the fire where it belongs.” He set the cage on the mantle. “But I’m already the luckiest man in the world to have such a wonderful wife and daughter.”
From its perch on the mantle the cricket chirped, as if in agreement.