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   Chapter 1 No.1

A Girl of the People By L. T. Meade Characters: 15722

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:06


"You have kept us waiting an age! Come along, Bet, do."

"She ain't going to funk it, surely!"

"No, no, not she,-she's a good 'un, Bet is,-come along, Bet. Joe Wilkins is waiting for us round the corner, and he says Sam is to be there, and Jimmy, and Hester Wright: do come along, now."

"Will Hester Wright sing?" suddenly demanded the girl who was being assailed by all these remarks.

"Yes, tip-top, a new song from one of the music halls in London. Now then, be you coming or not, Bet?"

"No, no, she's funking it," suddenly called out a dancing little sprite of a newspaper girl. She came up close to Bet as she spoke, and shook a dirty hand in her face, and gazed up at her with two mirthful, teasing, wicked black eyes. "Bet's funking it,-she's a mammy's girl,-she's tied to her mammy's apron-strings, he-he-he!"

The other girls all joined in the laugh; and Bet, who was standing stolid and straight in the centre of the group, first flushed angrily, then turned pale and bit her lips.

"I ain't funking," she said; "nobody can ever say as there's any funk about me,-there's my share. Good-night."

She tossed a shilling on to the pavement, and before the astonished girls could intercept her, turned on her heel and marched away.

A mocking laugh or two floated after her on the night air, then the black-eyed girl picked up the shilling, said Bet was a "good 'un, though she wor that contrairy," and the whole party set off singing and shouting, up the narrow street of this particular Liverpool slum.

Bet, when she left her companions, walked quickly in the direction of the docks; the pallor still continued on her brown cheeks, and a dazed expression filled her heavy eyes.

"They clinched it when they said I wor a mammy's girl," she muttered. "There ain't no funk in me, but there was a look about mother this morning that I couldn't a-bear. No, I ain't a mammy's girl, not I. There was never nought so good about me, and I have give away my last shilling,-flung it into the gutter. Well, never mind. I ain't tied to nobody's apron-strings-no, not I. Wish I wor, wish I wor."

She walked on, not too fast, holding herself very stiff and erect now. She was a tall girl, made on a large and generous scale, her head was well set on a pair of shapely shoulders, and her coils of red-brown hair were twisted tightly round her massive head.

"Bet," said a young lad, as he rushed up the street-"ha-ha, handsome Bet, give us a kiss, will ye?"

Bet rewarded him with a smart cuff across his face, and marched on, more defiant than ever.

As she paused at a certain door a sweet-looking girl with a white face, dressed in the garb of a Sister, came out.

"Ah, Elizabeth, I am glad you have arrived," she said. "I have just left your mother; she has been crying for you, and-and-she is very ill indeed."

"Oh, I know that, Sister Mary; let me go upstairs now."

Bet pushed past the girl almost rudely, and ascended the dark rickety stairs with a light step. Her head was held very far back, and in her eyes there was a curious mixture of defiance, softness and despair. Two little boys, with the same reddish-brown hair as hers, were playing noisily on the fourth landing. They made a rush at Bet when they saw her, climbed up her like little cats, and half strangled her with their thin half-naked arms.

"Bet, Bet, I say, mother's awful bad. Bet, speak to Nat; he stole my marble, he did. Fie on you, Cap'n; you shouldn't have done it."

"I like that!" shouted the ragged boy addressed as "Cap'n." "You took it from me first, you know you did, Gen'ral."

"If mother's bad, you shouldn't make a noise," said Bet, flinging the two little boys away, with no particular gentleness. "There, of course I'll kiss you, Gen'ral-poor little lad. Go down now and play on the next landing, and keep quiet for the next ten minutes if it's in you."

"Bet," whispered the youngest boy, who was known as "Cap'n," "shall I tell yer what mother did this morning?"

"No, no; I don't want to hear-go downstairs and keep quiet, do."

"Oh, yer'll be in such a steaming rage! She burnt yer book, yer Jane Eyre as yer wor reading-lor, it were fine-the bit as you read to the Gen'ral and me, but she said as it wor a hell-fire book, and she burnt it-I seed her, and so did the Gen'ral-she pushed it between the bars with the poker. She got up in her night-things to do it, and then she got back to bed again, and she panted for nearly an hour after-didn't she, Gen'ral?"

"Yes-yes-come along, come along. Look at Bet! she's going to strike some 'un-look at her; didn't we say as she'd be in a steaming rage. Come, Cap'n."

The little boys scuttled downstairs, shouting and tumbling over one another in their flight. Bet stood perfectly still on the landing. The boys were right when they said she would be in a rage; her heart beat heavily, her face was white, and for an instant she pressed her forehead against the door of her mother's room and clenched her teeth.

The book burnt! the poor book which had given her pleasure, and which she had saved up her pence to buy-the book which had drawn her out of herself, and made her forget her wretched surroundings, committed to the flames-ignominiously destroyed, and called bad names, too. How dared her mother do it? how dared she? The girls were right when they said she was tied to apron-strings-she was, she was! But she would bear it no longer. She would show her mother that she would submit to no leading-that she, Elizabeth Granger, the handsomest newspaper girl in Liverpool, was a woman, and her own mistress.

"She oughtn't to have done it," half-groaned Bet "The poor book! And I'll never know now what's come to Jane and Rochester-I'll never know. It cuts me to the quick. Mother oughtn't to take pleasure from one like that, but it's all of a piece. Well, I'll go in and say 'good night' to her, and then I'll go back to the girls. I'm sorry I've lost my evening's spree, but I can hear Hester Wright sing, leastways; and mebbe she'll let me walk home with her."

With one hand Bet brushed something like moisture from her eyes; with the other she opened the door of her mother's room, and went in. Her entrance was noisy, and as she stood on the threshold her expression was defiant. Then all in a second the girl's face changed; a soft, troubled, hungry look filled her eyes; she glided forward without even making the boards creak. In Bet's absence the room had undergone a transformation. A bright fire burned in a carefully polished grate; in front of the hearth a thick knitted rug was placed; the floor was tidy, the two or three rickety chairs were in order, the wooden mantel-piece was free of dust. Over her mother's bed a soft crimson counterpane was thrown, and her mother, half sitting up, rested her white face against the snowy pillows. A little table stood near the bedside, which contained some cordial in a glass. The sick woman's long thin hands lay outside the crimson counterpane, and her eyes, dark and wistful, were turned in the direction of the door. Bet went straight up to the bed: the transformation in the room was nothing to her; she saw it, and guessed quickly that Sister Mary had done it; but the look, the changed look on her mother's face, was everything. She forgot her own wrongs and the burnt book; her heart was filled with a wild fear, a dreary sense of coming desolation seized her, and clasping her mother's long thin fingers in her own brown strong hands, she bent down and whispered in a husky voice,

"Mother-oh, mother!"

The woman looked up and smiled.

"You've come back, Bet?" she said. "Give me a drop of the cordial. I'm glad you've come back. I thought it might have been the will of Him who knows best that I should die without seeing of you again, Elizabeth."

"Oh, no, mother-of course I've

come back. I hurried home. I didn't stay for nobody. How nice the room looks, mother-and the kettle boils. I'll make you a cup o' tea."

"No, Bet, I don't want it; stoop down, and look at me. Bet, look me in the eyes-oh, my girl, my girl!"

Bet gazed unflinchingly at her mother. The two faces were somewhat alike-the same red gleam in the brown eyes, the same touch of red on the abundant hair; but one face was tired, worn out, and the other was fresh and full and plump. Both faces had certain lines of hardness, certain indications of stormy, troublous souls looking through the eyes, and speaking on the lips.

"I'm going to die, Bet; Fin going back to the good God," panted Mrs. Granger. "The doctor have been, and he says mebbe it'll last till morning, mebbe not. I'm going back to Him as knows best,-it's a rare sight of good fortune for me, ain't it?"

"I don't believe you're going to die," said Bet. She spoke harshly, in an effort to subdue the emotion which was making her tremble all over. "Doctors are allays a-frightening folks. Have a cup o' tea, mother?"

"It don't frighten me, Bet," said Mrs. Granger. "I'm going away, and He's coming to fetch me; I ain't afeard. I never seemed more of a poor sort of a body than I do to-night, but somehow I ain't afeard. When He comes He'll be good-I know He'll be good to me."

"Oh, you're ready fast enough, mother," said Bet, with some bitterness. "No one has less call to talk humble than you, mother. You was allays all for good, as you calls it."

"I was reg'lar at church, and I did my dooty," answered Mrs. Granger. "But somehow I feels poor and humble to-night. Mebbe I didn't go the right way to make you think well on religion, Bet. Mebbe I didn't do nothing right-only I tried, I tried."

There was a piteous note in the voice, and a quivering of the thin austere lips, which came to Bet as a revelation. Her own trembling increased violently; she threw herself down by the bedside and sobs shook her.

"Mother, mother, it have all been hateful, hateful," she moaned. "And oh, mother, why did you burn my book?"

There was no answer. The white thin hand rested with a certain tremble on the girl's thick hair.

"Why did you burn my book, that gave me pleasure, mother?" said Bet, raising her head, and speaking with her old defiance.

"I thought," began Mrs. Granger,-"mebbe I did wrong,-mebbe I were too 'ard. Him that knows best will forgive me."

"Oh, mother, mother! I forgive you from the bottom of my heart."

Bet took one of the thin hands, and covered it with passionate kisses.

"I ain't good," she said, "and I don't want to die. It floors me, mother, how you can be glad to go down into the grave and stay there-ugh!"

"I ain't going to stay there," replied the dying woman, in a faint though confident voice.

She was silent then for a few moments, but there was a shining, satisfied light in her eyes; and her lips opened once or twice, as if to speak. Bet held one of her hands firmly, and her own eager hungry eyes never stirred from the dying, tired-out face.

"Bet."

"Yes, mother."

"You'll make me a bit of promise afore I go?"

"A promise, mother?"

"Yes, a promise. Oh, Bet, a promise from you means an awful lot. You don't break your word. You're as strong as strong,-and if you promise me this, you'll be splendid-you'll be-give me a drop of the cordial, child,-you'll be-I have been praying about it all day, I have been saying, 'Lord, send Bet in gentle-like, and trackable-like, and with no anger nourished in her heart, and, and,-another sip, child-the breath's short-I-you'll make me the promise, won't you, child?"

"Oh yes, poor mother, if I can!"

"Yes, you can; and it'll be so splendid. There, I'm stronger, now. Him as knows has given me the strength. Why, you're me over again, Bet, but you're twice as grand as me. You're me without my frets, and my contrariness. Fancy, Bet, what you'd be in this 'ere place ef you made that promise. Why, strong?-strong 'ud be no word for it! You, with never your temper let out like a raging lion! There'd be no one as could stand agen you, Bet. Your father,-why your father 'd give up the bad ways and the drink. And the little boys,-the little boys,-oh, Bet, Bet, ef you'd only make the promise it 'ud save them all from hell-fire."

"I'll do what I can mother. See, you're wasting all your poor breath. I'll do what I can. You say it all out, and don't tremble so, poor mother."

"Hold my hands, then, child; look me in the face, say the words after me-oh, my poor breath, my poor breath-God give me strength just to say the words. Bet, you hear. Bet, say them after me-'From this moment out I promise to take up with religion, so help me, Lord God Almighty!'"

The woman said the words eagerly, with sudden and intense fire and passion; her whole soul was in them-her dying hands hurt the girl with the firmness of their grip.

"Bet, Bet-you hain't spoke-you hain't spoke!"

"No, no, mother-I can't-not them words-no, mother."

Bet sat down again by the side of the bed; her face was buried in the crimson counterpane; a dry moan or two escaped her lips.

"I'd do anything for mother-anything now as she's really going away, but I couldn't take up with religion," she sobbed. "Oh, it's a mistake-all a mistake, and it ain't meant for one like me. Why, I, if I were religious-why, I'd have to turn into a hypocrite-why,-I-I'd scorn myself. Yes, mother, what are you saying? Yes, mother, I'd do anything to make your death-bed easy-anything but this."

Bet had fancied she had heard her mother speaking; the perfect stillness now alarmed her far more than any words, and she lifted her head with a start. Mrs. Granger was lying motionless, but she was neither dead nor had she fainted. Her restless hands were quiet, and her worn-out face, although it looked deadly pale, was peaceful. Here eyes looked a little upwards, and in them there was a contented smile. Bet saw the look, and nothing in all the world could have horrified her more. Her mother, who thought religion beyond anything else, had just heard her say that never, never, even to smooth a dying pillow, could she, Bet, take up with the ways of the religious; and yet her eyes smiled and she looked content.

"Mother, you don't even care," said Bet, in an anguish of pain and inconsistency.

"O, yes, child, I care; but I seem to hear Him as knows best saying 'Leave it to me.' I ain't fretting, child; I has come to a place where no one frets, and you're either all in despair, or you're as still and calm and happy"-here she broke off abruptly. "Bet, I want yer to be good to the little boys-to stand atween them and their father, and not to larn them no bad ways They're wild little chaps, and they take to the bad as easy as easy; but you can do whatever yer likes with them. Your father, he don't care for nobody, and he'd do them an ill turn; but you'll stand atween them and him-d'ye hear, Bet?"

"Yes, mother-I'll make a promise about that, if you like."

"No, no; you never broke your word, and saying it once'll content me."

"Mother," said Bet, suddenly. "Mebbe you'd like the little chaps to turn religious. As you've allays set such a deal of store on prayers and sich like, mebbe you'd like it for them?"

"Oh, yes, Bet-oh, my poor gel, has the Lord seen fit to soften yer hard heart?"

"Look here, mother,"-here the tall, splendidly-made girl stood up, and throwing back her head, and with the firelight full on her face, and reflecting a new, strange expression of excitement, she spoke suddenly: "I can't promise the other, but I'll promise this. The little boys' lives shall come afore my life-harm shall come to me afore it touches them; and ef religion can do anything for them, why, they shall hear of it and choose for themselves. There, I have promised."

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