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A Girl of the People By L. T. Meade Characters: 11026

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:06


MRS. Granger lingered all through that night, but she scarcely said anything more, and in the cold dawn of the morning her spirit passed very quietly away. The two little boys opened the room door noisily at midnight, but they too were impressed, as Bet had been, by the unusual order and appearance of comfort of the room. Perhaps they were also startled by the girl's still figure crouching by the bedside, and by the look on their mother's face as she lay with her eyes closed, breathing hard and fast. They ceased to talk noisily, and crept over to a straw mattress on the floor which they shared together. When they next opened their eyes they were motherless.

Mrs. Granger died between five and six in the morning; and when the breath had quite left her body Bet arose, stretched herself,-for she was quite stiff from sitting so long in one position,-and going downstairs, woke a neighbor who occupied a room on the next floor.

"Mrs. Bennett, my mother is dead; can you take care of the Cap'n and the Gen'ral this morning? I'll pay you for it when I sell my papers to-night."

Mrs. Bennett was a wrinkled old woman of about sixty-five. She was deeply interested in tales of death and calamity, and instantly offered not only to do what she could for the boys, but to go upstairs and assist in the laying out of the dead woman.

"No, no; I'll do what's wanted myself," replied Bet; "ef you'll take the boys I'll bring them down asleep as they are, and I'll be ever so much obligated. No, don't come upstairs, please. Father'll be in presently, and then him and me and mother must be alone; for I've a word to say to father, and no one must hear me."

Bet went back to the room where her mother had died. She was very tired, and her limbs were stiff and ached badly after the long night's vigil she had gone through. No particular or overwhelming grief oppressed her. On the whole, she had loved her mother better than any other human being; but the time for grief, and the awful sense of not having her to turn to, had not yet arrived; she was only conscious of a very solemn promise made, and of an overpowering sense of weariness. She lay down on the bed beside the dead woman, and fell into a sound and dreamless slumber.

In about an hour's time noisy steps were heard ascending the stairs. The little boys, cuddling close to one another in Mrs. Bennett's bed, heard them, and clasped each other's hands in alarm; but Bet sound, very sound, asleep did not know when her father reeled into the room. He had been out all night-a common practice of his-and he ought to have been fairly sober now, for the public-houses had been shut for many hours, but a boon companion had taken him home for a private carouse. He was more tipsy than he had ever been known to be at that hour of the morning, and consequently more savage. He entered the room where his dead wife and his young daughter lay, cursing and muttering,-a bad man every inch of him-terrible just then in his savage imbecility.

"Bet," he said, "Bet, get up. Martha, I want my cup of tea. Get it for me at once-I say, at once! I'm an hour late now for the docks, and Jim Targent will get my job. I must have my tea,-my head's reeling! Get up, Martha, or I'll kick you!"

"I'll get you the tea, father," said Bet.

She had risen instantly at the sound of his voice. "Set down in that chair and keep still; keep still, I say-you'd better."

She pushed him on to a hard wooden chair, shaking him not a little as she did so.

"There, I'll put the kettle on and make the tea for you-not that I'll ever do it again-no, never, as long as I live. There, you'd better set quiet, or not one drop shall pass your lips."

"Why don't the woman get it for me?" growled Granger. "I didn't mean you to be awoke, Bet. Young gels must have their slumber out. Why don't the woman see to her duty?"

"She has done her duty, father. You set still, and you shall have the tea presently."

The man glared at his daughter with his bloodshot eyes. She had been up all night, and her hair was tossed, and her eyes smarted; but beside him she looked so fresh, so upright, so brave and strong, that he himself in some undefinable way felt the contrast, and shrank from her. He turned his uneasy gaze towards the bed; he would vent his spite on that weak wife of his-Martha should know what it was to keep a man with a splitting headache waiting for his tea. He made an effort to rise, and to approach the bed, but Bet forestalled him.

"Set you there, or you'll drink no tea in this house," she said; and then, taking a shawl, she threw it over an old clothes-screen, and placed it between Granger and his dead wife.

The kettle boiled at last, the tea was made strong ang good, and Bet took a cup to her father. He drained it off at one long draught, and held out his shaking hand to have the cup refilled. Bet supplied him with a second draught, then she placed her hand with the air of a professional nurse on his wrist.

"You're better now, father."

"That I am, gel, and thank you. You're by no means a bad sort, Bet-worth twenty of her, I can tell you."

"Leave her out of the question, if you please, father, or you'll get no help from me. You'd like to wash your face, mebbe?"

"Yes, yes, with cold water. Give me your hand, child, and I'll get up."

"Set you still-I'll fetch the water."

She brought it in a tin pail, with a piece of flannel and soap and a coarse towel.

"Now, wash-wash and make yourself as clean as

you can-for you has got to see summut-leastways you can take the outside dirt away; there, make yourself clean while I lets the daylight in."

The man washed and laved himself. He was becoming gradually sober, and Bet's words had a subduing effect; he looked after her with a certain maudlin admiration, as she drew up the blind, and let the uncertain daylight into the poor little room. Then she went behind the screen, and he heard her for a moment or two moving about. He dried his face and hands and hair and was standing up, looking comparatively fresh and another man, when she returned to him.

"You're not a bad sort of a gel," he said, attempting to chuck her under the chin, only she drew away from him. "You know what a man wants, and you get it for him and don't hurl no ugly words in his face. Well, I'm off to the docks now. I'll let the old 'ooman sleep on, this once, and tell her what I think on her, and how much more I set store by that daughter of hers, tonight."

"You'll let her sleep on, will you?" said Bet.

Her tone was queer and constrained; even her father noticed it.

"She is asleep now; come and look at her; you may wake her if you can."

"No, no, gel; let me get off-Jim Targent will get my berth unless I look sharp. Let me be, Bet-your mother can sleep her fill this morning."

"Come and look at her, father; come-you must."

She took his hand-she was very strong-stronger than him at that moment, for his legs were not steady, and even now he was scarcely sober.

"I don't want to see an old 'ooman asleep," he muttered, but he let the strong hand lead him forward. Bet pushed back the screen, and drew him close to the bed.

"Wake her if you can," she said, and her eyes blazed into his.

Granger looked. There was no mistaking what he saw.

"My God!" he murmured. "Bet, you shouldn't have done it-you shouldn't have broke it to me like this!"

He trembled all over.

"Martha dead! Let me get away. I hate dead people."

"Put your hand on her forehead, father. See, she couldn't have got your tea for you. It were no fault of her'n-you beat her, and you kicked her, and you made life awful for her; but you couldn't hurt her this morning; she's above you now, you can't touch her now."

"Let me go, Bet-you're an awful girl-you had no call to give me a turn like this. No, I won't touch her, and you can't force me. I'm going out-I won't stay in this room. I'm going down to the docks-I mustn't lose my work. What do you say-that I shan't go? Where will you all be if I don't arn your bread for you?"

"Set down there on the side of the bed, father. I'll keep you five minutes and no more. You needn't be all in a tremble-you needn't be showing of the white feather. Bless you, she never could hurt you less than she does now. Set there, and look at her face. I've a word or two to say, and I can only say it with you looking at her dead face. Then you can go down to the docks, and stay there for always as far as it matters to me."

She pushed the man on to the bed. He could see the white, still face of his dead wife. The tired look had left it; the wrinkles had almost disappeared. Martha Granger looked twenty years younger than she had done yesterday.

Around the closed eyelids, around the softly smiling mouth, lay an awful peace and grandeur. The drunken husband looked at the wife whom he had abused, whose days he had rendered one long misery, and a lump arose in his throat; a queer new sensation, which he could not recognize as either remorse or repentance, filled his breast. He no longer opposed Bet; he gazed fixedly, with a stricken stare, at the dead woman.

"Speak, gel; say what you have to say," he muttered.

"It's only a word or two, father-It's just this. Mother's dead, and in a day or two she'll be buried. You worn't there to bid her good-bye, and it ain't likely you'll ever meet her again, unless that's true about the Judgment Day. Maybe it is true, and maybe mother will tell God some ugly things about you then, father. Maybe you'll see her then for a minute or two-I can't say."

"Don't," said Granger. "You're awful when you likes, Bet. You has me down, and you tramples on me. You're a cruel gel, and no mistake."

A derisive smile came to Bet's face.

"Mother's dead and she'll be buried," she continued, in a dry, monotonous voice. "The money is in the burying club for her, and she can be laid in the grave decent like. Then me and the boys, Nat and Thady, we're going away. I wanted to say that-I wanted to say that your ways aren't our ways, and so we'd best part company; and I wanted to say here, with you looking at mother's dead face, and her smiling back at you so awful and still, and the good God, if there is a God, listening, that I has promised mother that the boys Nat and Thady-the Cap'n and Gen'ral, as they're called here-shan't larn your ways, which are bad past belief; so when mother's buried, we're going away. That's all. You can go to the docks, now."

As Bet spoke she took a little white soft handkerchief, and laid it gently over her mother's face.

"You can go now," she repeated, and she opened the door for the man, who slunk out of the room. He was half-sober, half-stupefied. A burning rage, which was neither remorse nor repentance, and yet was a mixture of both, surged up in his heart. He said to himself, that he was sorry for Martha, who was dead, and quite beyond his reach any more; but he hated Bet, for she had humbled him and dared to defy him.

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