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   Chapter 4 No.4

A Girl of the People By L. T. Meade Characters: 17383

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:06

Bet wept silently for the greater part of the day which saw her motherless, but in the evening she went out as usual to sell her papers. Her eyes were swollen from the heavy and constant tears she shed, but she had neatly plaited her hair and wound it round her comely head, and she carried herself with even a little more defiance than usual. She was miserable to-night, and she felt that the whole world was against her.

The night, for the time of year was November, was quite in accordance with her feelings. It was damp, a drizzling mist was blown into her face, and the pavements were slippery with that peculiar Liverpool mud which exceeds even London mud in slipperiness. Bet's beat, however, was brightly lighted; there was a public-house at one corner, and a little further up were two gentlemen's clubs. All were brilliant with gaslight, and the girl, wrapping her shawl about her-she wore no hat or bonnet-took her accustomed stand. She always avoided the public-house-not because she feared its tipsy inhabitants, but because she knew no sale for her wares lay there. Her favorite stand was under a lamp post, close to the largest of the clubs. The light of the lamp fell full on her face and figure, and shone on the evening papers which she offered for sale. Her customers came up as usual, bought what they required of her, one or two giving her a careless and some a friendly "good-evening." No one noticed her pallid cheeks, nor the heavy depths of trouble in her red-brown eyes. Her luck, however, was good, and she had almost sold all her little stock of papers, when a vibrating and rather peculiar voice at her elbow caused her to start and turn quickly.

"Is that you, Hester Wright?" she said, speaking in an almost pettish voice. "Well, I can't go with you to-night, no how; I'm off home this minute."

"Why, Bet, is yer mother took worse?" asked the voice. It vibrated again, and two sweet though rather wild-looking eyes gazed full into Bet's tired, white face.

"Mother," said the girl. She made a valiant struggle, but no more words would come.

After about a moment she spoke in a strained and totally altered voice:

"Let me be for to-night, Hester. I've sold my papers, and I'm going home."

"No, you're not, honey; you're coming along o' me. Don't I see as yer white with the grief, and half distraught like. There, I'm alone tonight, unless Will should drop in; come and have a cup o' tea with me, Bet."

"My mother's dead, Hester," said Bet. She could speak without effort now, but the tears were raining down her cheeks.

"Poor lamb! Dead? Well, I thought as the blow would come. You come home with me, Elizabeth. Maybe I'll sing something to you."

At this proposition Bet changed color.

"I'm starved for that voice of yours, Hester," she said. And then she put her hand through her companion's arm, and they walked off at a quiet pace together. Hester was as tall as Bet, and about ten years her senior. She was very slender, and carried herself well; her eyes were dark and beautiful, otherwise she had a queer, irregularly formed face. Her jet-black hair grew low on her forehead, and when she smiled, which she only did occasionally, she showed the gleam of very white teeth. No one called Hester Wright handsome, but few women of her class in Liverpool had a wider influence. She had a peculiar voice, rather deep set, and, at least in speaking, only admitting of a limited range of compass; but every word spoken by her was so nicely adjusted, so carefully modulated, that the simplest and most ill-formed sentence acquired a rude eloquence. This was her speaking voice. When she sang, it rose into power; it was then a deep contralto, utterly untaught, but free and easy as the notes of a bird. Hester could do what she liked with men and women when she sang to them, and she knew her power. In her own circle she was more or less of a queen, and although she was no better and no richer than the poorest of the Liverpool girls, yet her smallest word of approbation was treasured almost as if it had been a royal gift. She had a great insight into character; she had large tact, and she was also affectionate.

Bet in her heart of hearts had a boundless admiration for this woman, and she felt a sense of comfort stealing over her as they walked quickly through the wet, slippery streets side by side.

Hester lived in a little room, which she managed to keep fairly neat and clean, quite close to the docks. In the daytime you could see the masts of the tall ships from her window, and the language of the sailors and the many shouts of the workers on the quays could be borne into her room on the breeze. Now the window was curtained, and a little fire shed a cheerful reflection on the dingy walls. Hester stirred the fire, threw on an additional lump or two of coal, and drawing a three-legged stool forward for Bet, motioned to her to seat herself. The room was fairly warm, and Bet was glad to dry her damp dress, and to spread out her hands before the cheerful blaze. As Hester bustled about, and laid a tiny table with plates for three, she gradually drew from Bet a little of the story of last night.

"I have promised," said Bet, in conclusion, "to keep the two littl'uns safe-that's my work now, and I told father this morning what he wor to expect."

"And how did he take it, honey?" said Hester. "He knew you, Bet. He knew as you weren't a girl to say one thing and mean another."

"Yes, he knew that," answered Bet. "Most folks know that of me," she continued, with a heavy sigh.

"Well, have some tea now, honey-draw up to the table. The butter's good, and the red-herring done to a turn. I expected Will Scarlett in, but we won't wait for him. Ah! here he is-just in the nick o' time."

The door was opened, and a young sailor, with a certain resemblance to Hester both in face and figure, stepped across the threshold. He colored up under his brown skin when he saw Bet, but she scarcely noticed him, and gave him her hand in limp fashion, her eves hardly raised.

"My ship sails to-morrow, Hester," he said, "the 'Good Queen Anne,'-I've got a rattling good berth this time, and no mistake."

He tossed off his cap as he spoke, again glanced at Bet with a certain shyness, and then dropped into the seat opposite to her.

"Help yourself, Will," said Hester. "Bet's in a bit o' trouble-you mustn't mind her; she wor telling me things, and she'll have a hard fight afore her, I can see. Well, I say she must keep up heart. Have some tea, honey? Will, don't you make two mouths of a cherry-put the whole of that herring on your plate-there are more in the bag for me to toast when this is finished."

"I can't eat, Hester-it's no use," said Bet.

She rose from the table, and went back once more to the little three-legged stool by the fire. Then she turned her back on Hester and the young sailor, and went on spreading out her hands to the warmth, as though she could never take the chill off.

"Don't mind her," whispered Hester to her cousin. "She's taking it hard, and I didn't know as it were in her. But presently she'll cry, and that'll bring her round. You tell me what your prospects are, Will. I'm loathe to part with ye, lad, and that's the truth."

"I'll be back by the summer, Hetty. We're going to Africa and back. I'm to be well paid, and it's a good ship to sail in. The cap'n ain't one of your rough and ready, and the rations are fair."

As he spoke he glanced again at Bet, who was leaning her cheek on her hand. Neither he nor Hester could catch any reflection of her face, which was completely hidden.

"We'll talk to her presently," whispered the elder woman. "Now push the table aside, Will, and let's have a sailor-song together, just for good luck."

"No, let's sing 'Barbara Allen,'" said Will. Again he glanced at Bet, and this time he sighed.

The two voices blended well, Will's being of nearly as rare a quality as his cousin's. When they sang, so great was the power of this gift bestowed upon them, they rose several degrees in the scale of refinement and even of education. Their voices lost all trace of dialect, their eyes shone with true feeling. The pathetic old words had never been more fitly rendered.

As the voices rose and swelled, and filled the little room with a perfect melody of sound, Bet ceased to sigh; her hands fell idly into her lap, and her face, which was now turned towards the singers, became filled with a sort of ecstasy. Her parted lips seemed scarcely to breathe, and her eyes reflected the emotions caused by the pathos of the story and the wonderful power of the singers like a mirror.

Will, who was watch

ing her even more intently than Hester, now began to sing only for her. He looked directly at her; and a great many emotions surging in his own soul must have come to her just now, borne on the words of the old ballad-

When he was dead and laid in grave,

Her heart was struck with sorrow.

O mother, mother, make my bed,

For I must die to-morrow.

Farewell, she said, ye virgins all,

And shun the fault I fell in;

Henceforth, take warning by the fall

Of cruel Barbara Allen.

There was almost a note of warning in Will's voice. It died away with a quaver which might have been a reproach.

Bet roused herself with a shivering sigh. "Eh," she said, "she was a cruel one. That was beautiful, Hester. Better than a drink of water when you are thirsty." She raised her hand to wipe away two tears which had rolled down her cheeks.

"It seems to me," she added, "that there is nought in all the world like the music of a grand voice like yours, Hester. It's the only beautiful thing I ha' met-your voice and Will's; they are just grand and summut to be thanked for. Well, I am obliged to you both; but I must say 'goodnight' now, for it is time for me to be going."

"No, no-that you won't, honey," said Hester, bustling forward, and pushing Bet down again on to the three-legged stool. "You're better, and the ice is broke a bit, and you must just set there in that cosy corner and tell me your plans. Oh, you need not mind Will; he'll just smoke his pipe and not listen more than he need to."

"I'll go out if you like," said Will, half rising.

Bet raised her pathetic eyes to his face. "I don't mind you, Will," she said, simply. Her words sent a thrill through the young fellow's heart. He did not know that when she began to speak to Hester she almost forgot his presence.

"Yes, Hester. They ain't much of plans, but such as they be they're made. Mother will be buried come Saturday, and then the boys and me we go away. Father have had fair warning, and he knows me. I'll take the littl'uns and be the best sort of mother I can to them; father shan't have 'em. He kick'd the Cap'n last week-he shan't never do it no more. I promised mother, so there's no argufying on that point-the boys and me we must go."

"But where will you take them, honey? You must find a place where he can't follow you-he's sartin sure to do his best if he thinks you are 'arning money, and I suppose the littl'uns are insured for-same as most of the children around."

"Oh, yes," said Bet, with a short, grim laugh; "he have a price on both their lives-don't let's talk of it. He shan't find 'em-and they shall live, if only to spite him."

"But where will you take 'em, my dear? He's a bad, cruel man, but he is a rare and clever one too, and he will outwit a slip of a lass like you. If he wants the boys he can claim them, I suppose. I'm main sorry for you, Bet; but I don't see how you are to hide them-I really don't."

"I have promised mother," said Bet; "there is no use argufying on that point." Then she added, in a softer voice: "I'm going to the Irish quarter. I know a woman there who'll be a match for father, but I'd best not say her name, for if he comes questioning it is better no one should know. Now, I'll say 'good-night' Hester; thank you for bringing me home. I'm more comforted than I wor."

When Bet rose, Will knocked the ashes out of his pipe. "I'll see you home, Bet," he said; and the two went out together.

When they got out on to the docks, Will said, half slyly, "The night's quite fair; will you come with me, Bet, and I'll show you where the 'Good Queen Anne' is lying at anchor, and all as trim as possible, ready to sail to-morrow night?"

"The 'Good Queen Anne,'" repeated Bet, "that's your ship, ain't it, Will?"

"Why, of course; didn't you hear me tell Hester? I am rare and lucky, I can tell you, to have found a berth in her-good pay and good rations, and a jolly crew, and a fair-spoken captain. It ain't every fellow has the luck to find a berthlike mine. And I'll be back in the summer, Bet. It's a short voyage, and everything just to my mind. You'll wish me luck, won't you, Bet? for the sake of-well, because we used to be playmates a while back, you mind."

"A good while back," repeated Bet. "Oh, yes, I wish you luck, Will. And is that the 'Good Queen Anne?' What is the figure at her bows?"

"A girl," said Will, eagerly, "with her arms over her head and a smile on her lips. Some people say it's a sort of figure of Queen Anne, after whom the ship is named, but I don't take her to be that; and now in the moonlight-you can see her well now, Bet, in the moonlight-with the smile showing upon her lips, she looks like what I take her to be more than ever."

"And what is that, Will?"

"Hope-aye, lass, a right good hope-and luck to Will Scarlett comes in the bonny ship." Bet sighed. Will's blue eyes were looking at her in the moonlight.

"I'll go home now," she said, gently. She sighed again, and half turned away her head from her companion.

"There's a many people have things to be thankful for," she said, presently. "I ain't one of them. I think I'll wish you good-night now, Will. Good-night, and-yes, good luck." She turned away without even offering her hand, plunging suddenly down a narrow court which would lead her out into the front of the town nearest to her home.

Will hesitated for a second; then, the blood surging up into his face, and his heart beating quickly, he ran after her.

"Bet," he cried. "Bet!" He heard her footsteps hurrying faster and faster on ahead of him. Presently, hearing his step, she began to run. He raced after her; he was fleeter than she was, and caught her up by the lamp-post round the corner.

"What did you do that for?" he said to her, almost angrily. "You had no call to give me the slip in that fashion. I hadn't said my say."

"I wanted to get home," said Bet-"the boys will be waiting for their supper, and I have nothing more to talk about."

"But I have," said Will, resolutely-"just a few words, Bet; they won't take long. I made up my mind long ago, only I did not think I'd speak until I had summut to offer. Now I have nought but the name of an honest fellow-only that seems better than nothing at all. Bet, will you wed me if I can manage it afore I sail in the 'Good Queen Anne'?"

Bet looked up with an angry flash in her red-brown eyes.

"Are you mad, Will Scarlet?" she said, "My mother's lying dead, and your ship sails to-morrow night."

"No matter that. If a parson, or the registry office, or any power on God's earth, can make us man and wife to-morrow, Bet why shouldn't we be mated? You have no one in all the world to look after you. There ain't a braver nor a more lone lass in all Liverpool, and I love you with all the strength of my heart. Why shouldn't it be better for me to be your mate than to have no one to take your part, Bet? The voyage will soon be made, and I'll come back with money in my pocket, and while I'm away your father cannot do much agin you if you have wed with me."

All the time Will was talking Bet walked faster and faster. When he had done speaking, however, she had relaxed her steps. They had reached a comparatively deserted place, and, to his surprise and ecstasy, Will felt her lay a timid hand on his arm.

"But I don't love you," she said, sorrowfully.

"You wouldn't want to mate with a girl what didn't love you, Will."

Will caught her hand and held it tightly between both his own.

"There's nought that I mind, except to be a bit of use to you just now, Bet," he said. "You are the lonest lass in this city, and it would be a sight better for you to be wed to me. You ain't afeard, are you? I'll be faithful to you to my dying day, and we have known each other since we were little tots."

"Yes," said Bet, slowly, "and mother liked you, and you can sing fit to wile any lass' heart away; but I don't love you, Will, and I swore long ago that I'd never, never wed."

"You'd never wed?" repeated Will. "There's more lads than me would have a word to say agin that. You ask twenty honest fellows who has the straightest step and bonniest face in the town, and they'd say fast enough it was Bet Granger. You are but joking me when you talk in that fashion, Bet."

"No, Will, it is true. It's a vow I made, and it's my way not to go back of things. When I looked at mother, and see'd the way father treated her, I made up my mind never to wed with none. I'll be no man's mate, and I'll trust myself to none. Good-night, Will, You mean it kindly; and I'd like to ask God, if I was sure that He was there at all, to bless you. Good-night, goodnight."

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