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   Chapter 6 No.6

A Girl of the People By L. T. Meade Characters: 11582

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:06


Hester Wright was a popular, but by no means, in the usual acceptance of the word, a specially good woman. She was the reverse of strait-laced; her morals were nothing in particular, and her ideas on all subjects, whether on righteousness or wickedness, the broadest of the broad. She went neither to church nor chapel on Sundays-she professed no religion, although when pressed on the point she would not admit that it worn't there. "May be it wor," she would say, only she had no time for it just now. She did not blame people for going to the public-house, although she never went herself, simply because that special place did not suit her special temperament; but she was extremely fond of spending her evenings at the penny theatres, or other cheap and decidedly low places of entertainment. There she would enjoy herself, looking on with eager interest at the coarse and gaudy representations of so-called "life." She would never laugh loudly, however, or applaud noisily, although she encouraged and smiled at those who did. She was very poor, but she was always neat in her person; and the expression in her big black eyes gave her a look a little above her station, so that, although she was not handsome, those who saw her once often turned to glance at her again. Wherever she went, in whatever company she found herself, she was invariably good-natured. Indeed, although she was not in the least aware of the fact, she was a most unselfish person. If a tired-out and hard-worked mother was seen pushing her way to the front at Hester's favorite theatre, The Cleopatra, Hester invariably resigned her own seat in her favor, and took the baby and amused it while the mother looked on and laughed. For girls and boys, particularly girls and boys who were sweethearting, she had a strong sympathy, getting them together in a very quiet and unobtrusive manner, and taking the keenest pleasure in promoting their happiness. She was extremely popular with the Liverpool girls, and this popularity was the great delight of her life. The girl who would not go near the parson or the Sunday-school teacher, or the Sister of Mercy, would pour out her woes or her joys into Hester's sympathetic ears-would receive the advice Hester gave, eagerly, and as a rule, if it were palatable or not, act upon it. No handsome young girl had the least cause to be jealous of Hester; for although she was still comparatively young, and had a power of attraction accorded to few women, it was well known in Hester's very wide circle of indiscriminate acquaintances that she had long ago vowed a vow, far more solemn than Bet's in her ignorance, to take to herself no mate, and to share her life with no one. Hester's mate that should have been had gone away far over the ocean and never come back again. He had been drowned at sea; and although she made no fuss and paraded her sorrow before no one, yet other men saw it would be useless to think of her as a wife. She was not a particularly industrious woman, and was perfectly indifferent to the comforts of life. She kept her room clean and neat, because, notwithstanding the queer medley which her character presented, she had certain refinements about her, cropping up in all sorts of queer directions-one of them lay in her great regard for personal neatness, the other in her wonderful gift of song. Hester could laugh at a coarse joke, but it was quite impossible for her to lend her voice to singing a coarse song. She liked old ballads best, and her choice of music was quite wonderful for a person of her education. If she had a strong love or passion it was for popularity. She liked to see the young lads or lasses crowding around her, begging for a song, or asking her for advice or help of any kind. She was a good worker, and got plenty to do from one of the beet boys' outfitting shops in Castle Street; but she was always extremely poor, and often knew what it was to be hungry, for she gave her money away quite as fast as she earned it. Her beautiful voice, although only used for the benefit of the lowest of the people, had brought to her more than one offer of lucrative employment from the managers of music-halls and cheap theatres. But Hester would have nothing to say to such proposals.

"I ain't keen about money," she would answer, "and I won't sell my voice. Somehow, it would take the joy out of it."

On the night after Hester had taken Bet home, she found herself in the entrance of The Cleopatra Theatre, about seven o'clock. A new piece was to be put on the stage that night, and the entrance to the small pit was already crowded with rough men and frowsy, untidy, disreputable girls. They all nodded to Hester, and seemed pleased to see her, and one or two made way to get her to the front.

"My Jack is coming presently, Hetty," whispered a girl of the name of Susan Jakes. "Set near me, like a dear, so as to keep a seat for him when he looks in."

Hester often performed this kind office, slipping quietly into the background afterwards, without permitting any word of thanks. Susan Jakes was a pale-faced girl, with light flaxen hair and pale blue eyes; she was rather pretty and very neglected-looking. When she saw "my Jack" her somewhat hard little face assumed a womanly and beautiful expression. Hester took her hand and gave it a squeeze.

"We'll keep side by side until Jack Masters comes," she whispered.

The girl and Hester, by reason of Hester's great popularity, got into quite a foremost position in the pit. Jack Masters arrived about half-an-hour afterwards, and just before the curtain was raised. He scarcely thanked Hetty-it was the usual thing for her to keep seats for the girl's sweethearts. She moved aside into quite the back of the crowded pit, and stood leaning against the wa

ll. A dreadfully tired-looking woman touched her arm.

"I've got out, Hetty Wright-he's at the public, and I'm here. Ain't it fine?"

"What have you done with the children?" asked Hester. "Yes, I'm glad you're in for a bit of pleasure, Mrs. Jones."

"See," said Mrs. Jones, pushing aside her shawl with a triumphant smile, "you overlooked her, the crowd's so great, but little Sarah's here. I put the others to bed, and neighbor Bryce will feed Tommy if he cries; but I brought little Sal along o' me. My! ain't she peart with delight? We're both that starved to see a bit of real gentry life, and to hear a good song or two."

Sal was a very minute maiden of eight years of age. Her whole small face was radiant with anticipation, but she could see nothing over the heads of the crowd. Instantly Hester lifted her into her arms.

"Lean on me, Sal," she said, "and look your fill. See, the curtain is up, and the play is going to begin."

It was a new piece and alas! only half prepared. A wretched performance it would have been at its best, badly put on, badly acted-coarse, common, the reverse of all that was lifelike; but, nevertheless, these eager, hungry, expectant people would have been abundantly content with the most extravagant representations if they had only been carried on with the smallest show of life or spirit. The actors, however, who none of them knew their parts, struggled on miserably for a scene or two, and then broke down utterly. It does not cost much to go to a penny theatre, but the people who frequent such places are, of all those in the world, the most anxious to get their money's worth. There was instantly an uproar and a clamor, and the house resounded with hisses, which but for a small incident would quickly have broken into yells.

The incident was this: Just when the piece was wavering to its miserable and final crash, Hester felt some hot, soft tears dripping on her face.

"I don't like it," said little Sal, "And they don't sing. I'm hungry to hear 'em sing-I'm hungry to hear 'em sing just one song."

"Yes, it's a biting disappointment," whispered the mother. "Sal ha' been telling of nothing else all day. She'd give all the world to hear jest a song, and it seems to me as they can't do nothing-not even speak."

Just then the crash came. The curtain was lowered, and the manager, purple in the face, came hastily and eagerly to the front. Little Sal put her head down on Hester's neck and wept bitterly, and then began the hisses and the cries of "Shame!"

"Never mind, Sal-I'll sing to you," whispered Hester. Quick as thought her resolve was taken. She was not the least self-conscious, but she was full of pity for the people. If every child in the room-and there were several-wanted a song as badly as Sal did, she could satisfy the small disappointed hearts.

She pushed her way through the crowd, saying to each who tried to hinder her-

"Let me pass, I'll sing to you; you know I can sing."

Her words were caught up, and cheers for Hester Wright ran through the house from her friends-and most there knew her, and were her friends-long before she reached the wings, and joined the astonished manager, who stood wavering, and in a considerable state of terror, on his deserted stage.

"I'll sing," said Hester, speaking to him eagerly and quickly. "The children are bitterly disappointed, and a song or two will quiet the whole house. Let me; I know how."

The manager was a stranger in the town, and had no acquaintance with the dark-eyed, intense woman who addressed him. The crowd, however, cheered and vociferated. Their ill-humor was changed into the most hearty approval.

"Just like Hetty, bless her," whispered Susan Jakes to her sweetheart. "Just like Hetty," resounded all over the small house. Be the woman mad or not, the manager saw she was popular, and his brow cleared.

"Yes, sing-sing anything," he responded, in a voice of intense relief. "I'll pay you anything in reason-only sing, and keep them quiet. This is an awful minute for me."

"I'll sing for the children, and not for money," said Hester, flashing an angry glance at him; and then her magnificent voice arose, and filled the house.

For some reason, the ballad which she and her cousin had sung together for Bet the night before was still ringing in her head. It rose easily to her lips, and she sang it first, giving point and meaning to the words in a way which took the manager by storm. What would he not give to secure such a treasure as Hester Wright for his house? "Home, sweet Home," came next; and then why she could not tell, perhaps because of a pain which was tugging at her heart, perhaps because of the weary look on some of the faces, and because a whole tide of memories was thronging before her, she chose "The Land o' the Leal." Such words, such melody, had never been heard before in that penny theatre. The women looked wistful, and many of them wept. Hester seemed to sing straight into their very hearts. The men shuffled uneasily, and one or two of them wiped their rough hands across their eyes.

"And oh, we'll all meet

In the Land o' the Leal."

sang Hester, and then her voice died away, and she turned and whispered something to the manager and hastily disappeared.

The men and women went home quietly; tender and long-forgotten feelings had been briefly aroused, and very few who had visited The Cleopatra went near the public-house that night.

"Them was blessed words," whispered little Sal's mother, "and she's a blessed gel. Talk of saints, I call Hester Wright one, though she never preached no sarmon. The 'Land o' the Leal'-why, it's there as our Johnny's gone. Bless her heart! The world ain't quite without comfort, when one thinks of bits of words like them."

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