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   Chapter 18 No.18

A Girl of the People By L. T. Meade Characters: 13610

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:06


In this land of justice there is nothing more incomprehensible than the extraordinary weight and power of merely circumstantial evidence. Never was there a more honest young fellow than Will Scarlett. From his babyhood he had lived by the golden rule which does to others as we would be done by; he had never given false measure, nor false words, nor had he been guilty of false deeds; in the true sense of the word, he was a Christian,-very bright, and gay, and jolly, and a prime favorite both with his captain and mates whenever he sailed abroad.

Nevertheless, this young man who bore so excellent a character was brought up before the magistrates on the morning of his wedding-day, charged with having stolen two Bank of England notes. As Will was being hurried to the police station, he felt quite certain that five minutes' conversation would set the whole matter straight; and he even wondered if Mr. Phillips could be got to return to the church later in the day to marry him to Bet. Bet's white, despairing face haunted him; and he tried to shut it away from his thoughts, and to dwell on the delightful anticipation of soon setting all her fears to rest.

But when Will appeared before the magistrates, matters did not go quite so easily as he had imagined. In the first place, he was not allowed to tell his own story; and in the next, the sealskin purse which was found on his person was in the most remarkable way brought to bear witness against him. For a young lady and her father appeared in the witness-box who both identified the purse as hers; and this young lady with the beautiful brown eyes looked very sorrowfully at Will, but also said with great clearness that it was in that purse certainly that the recovered notes had been placed by her, and it was most undoubtedly out of that purse that twenty-six pounds in notes and gold had been stolen.

Will's anxious face cleared a little when Higgins appeared; but to his amazement Higgins seemed to be altogether on the other side-spoke of Will's eagerness and of Bet's trepidation, and how they both seemed in a great hurry and anxious to be rid of the notes at any price, and how loth Will was to write his name and address on the back. In short, everything seemed to go quite against him: and the one longing the poor fellow had was for Dent to be found-for, of course, Dent could and would clear him.

Finally he was remanded for a week, until some tidings could be got of Dent; he spent that night in jail, with all hope of a speedy wedding-day vanishing into the dim distance. Whatever happened, he had lost his berth in the good ship which was to sail from the Mersey on the following Monday;-whatever happened, too, was not his character more or less stained from this contamination with the prison?

When Bet recovered from her faint, she went straight home, but Hester hastened to the police-court, to learn Will's fate. He saw her as he stood in the prisoner's dock; and all that eyes could convey of sympathy, and belief, and longing to help, she gave him. When the magistrates uttered their judgment, and it was decided Will should spend the next week in the lock-up, Hester did push near enough to him to say-

"I'll take care of that lass of yours, cousin; and she and me, we won't leave a stone unturned to find the man what 'as wronged you."

Then Hester hastened off to Paradise Row, where she had first a long interview with Mother Bunch, and then found her way upstairs to Bet's room. Bet was seated on the side of her bed; her hair looked rough and untidy; her poor dress was no longer orderly; there was a flush of defiance on her cheeks, and a hard gleam in her eyes.

"Well, ha' they done for him?" she said. "I never believed much in goodness, and this day-well, this day's work ha' finished me. Don't talk to me of justice, nor mercy neither. What ha? they done with Will, Hetty? He's the only honest lad I ever came across,-and there-he's took up for thieving! Oh, don't ever talk to me about there being real goodness in the world."

"You talk silly," said Hester. "It's badness has ruined Will Scarlett. The bad heart of a real wicked man has spoiled the honest lad. Don't talk about what you know nought on, Bet, but think how we can serve him. He's locked up for a week, so that Dent may be found and brought to confess. You and me has a power to do in a week, and we have no time to talk silly words, what have neither sense nor meaning in 'em."

Bet's face changed while Hester was speaking. The defiant, almost repellant, look left it: it did not regain any of that strange softness which transfigured it when in Will's presence; but it was no longer hopeless; the idea of work to be done had driven away the cruel demon of despair.

"Oh, Hetty," said Bet, running up to Hester, and dragging her down to sit beside her on the pallet bed. "I'm glad as there's summut to be done. Mother allus said I was a hard 'un, and that the Almighty hadn't no love for such as me. And I did feel hard arter Will were took away-for I never had no real happiness, Hester, until arter Will and I promised to wed each other-and I thought it must be true about the Almighty hating such as me when He took Will from me at the very church door. But I don't mind anything now, Hetty, if there's ought as I can serve the lad with. I'm despert-I'm despert, as far as I think of myself, but there's nought-nought-as I wouldn't do to serve Will. I'd break a promise-I'd break a promise made to the dying,-me, who never broke my word!-ef it would serve the lad I loves. There, Hetty-no one can go further than that,-no one can speak more solemn and meaningful."

"Poor Bet!" said Hester. "Your heart's wrung, my dear-your words are wild, but their meaning's true enough. Will 'ull get a good wife in you, Bet, and you'll forget an evil day like this by-and-bye. But now," she added, "we has got to plan and to contrive, and the main thing is to find that villain Dent. I were at the police-court all day, and I heard every word, and it seemed to me them men could twist anything, and turn black into white, and t'other way, just as it pleased them. And they did say things agin' Will as most took my own breath from me; and all the time the lad stood there, with his face as honest as the sky, only a bit puzzled like. But it seemed to me, and that's what I come to you for, Bet, that the only chance for our poor Will is to find that villain Dent, and get the truth out of him some way. You said, Bet, that Dent hadn't sailed in Will's ship-oh, it's plain to be seen as he give the lad the money just to get him into this trouble. And Will, he's like a baby, for thinking innocent of all the world. Well, well, I mustn't dwell on it, for my own heart burns; but ef you know where Dent is hiding, Bet,

you might get news of him, and bring me word as quick as may be."

"I don't know where he hides," said Bet, "but all the same I might get news of him. I think I know a way," she added, her face growing white again and hard,-"you go home, Hetty; it ain't for you to help me again in this matter,-you know my mind, and how I wouldn't stop at nought when I'm torn as I am to-night. But it ain't for you to help me in this. You go home, Hetty dear; and ef I have news I'll look you up later on." "Then I'll take the lads with me," said Hester. "You can't do nought with them when you're all upset as you are now; and they'll be good with me, and I'll give them summut to eat. Why Bet, my dear, you needn't take it in that way; for if I didn't do a good turn to the poor little chaps for their sake and your own, wouldn't I do it for Will, as is my own cousin, and who I love better than anybody else in the world? Don't you take on now, dear-don't you," for Bet had flung her head down on her hands, and was giving way to the most terrible, heartbreaking sobs.

"Oh, the poor lads!" she said-"the poor, poor, little lads-and my promise to mother! But there-Will comes afore all. Take 'em home, Hetty, and give 'em the best you can for to-night. No, no, boys-don't come for to kiss me-I ain't a good sister to you no more."

The captain and the general paid no particular attention to Bet's manner. They were sorry she was in trouble, but the delight of going off with Hester soon made this dismal remembrance fade from their baby minds. The little party went away, and Bet was left alone in her attic.

Her bridal night!-but what a night! Will lying lonely and forsaken in his prison cell, and she-she, Bet Granger, the poor, but also the honest and upright, about to be unfaithful to the most solemn vow she had ever taken in her life Never mind; love must still be lord of all, and Will must be saved at any price.

She wrapped her shawl about her stately head, smoothed back the fuzzy red-gold locks, and went out into the desolate winter night. She left Paradise Row quickly behind her, and in a very short time was once more in Sparrow Street She stopped at the familiar door, and ran quickly up the stairs. Her heart almost choked her as she stood for a moment outside the door of the room where her mother had died. There was no sound; she turned the handle and went in. The room was empty, and looked untidy, dirty, desolate. A little fire, however, lingered in the grate, and a paraffin lamp smoked and smelt horribly on the dirty deal table. Bet tucked up her dress, and in a few moments transformed the room. The fire was built up, and burned brightly; the lamp was trimmed, the ashes were swept out of the grate, and the chairs were dusted and put tidy. She found a dirty cloth which ought to have been white, shook it and smoothed it out, and covered the deal table with it. She laid a couple of horn knives and forks, a couple of cracked plates, and a glass or two on the table. There was no food, however, in the cupboard, and she had no money in her pocket to buy any. She sat down now by the glowing fire, and waited. She had tossed off her shawl, and the firelight fell on her pale, proud face; her lips were very firmly set, and her resolute eyes looked into the fire. Inwardly she was faint and sick, for she had not tasted food that day; but she was unconscious of absolute hunger, all the energy within both soul and body being fixed on one idea.

A step was heard on the stairs-a shambling step. Bet knew it. She stood up, and when her father entered the room, confronted him with eyes that almost blazed.

"Here I am," she said. "I have come back-you can have your way. You didn't starve me out, but you took my heart and crushed it-you crushed it under your foot. You're a bad man; there's only one worse than you, and that's Isaac Dent. I have come back, and I'll stay ef you'll take me on my own terms. Not unless-mind you that-not unless."

Granger was a little the worse for drink. He was not really tipsy, but he had taken enough slightly to confuse his brain; and the altered aspect of the room and the sudden apparition of his daughter almost paralyzed him.

"Well, I never!" he exclaimed, and he sank down, an abject-looking figure, on the nearest chair.

"Do you hear me, father?" said Bet. She came up close and stood over him. "I ha' come back, Ef you give me my terms, I'll stay. I'll stay, and I don't mind owning that I've been conquered. I'll do for you, and tend you, and keep the place tidy for you, same as I did when mother was alive, and what money I earns you shall share. I'll be as true a daughter to you, father, as ef-as ef you was good. You want some one to cosset you up, don't you father? You give me my way, and I'll do it. Cosy will be no name for you, father, and snug no word for this yer room."

Here Bet knelt down, and laid her shapely hand on Granger's arm; her eyes looked into his, and her lips, so hard and firm a minute ago, absolutely smiled.

"You're none so young as you were," she continued; "you're getting on in years, and your step's a bit shaky, and your hairs are turning white. You wants your comforts, father-course you do. Why, this room-it was shameful when I come in, and look at it now!-it's a bit spry, ain't it now?"

"For sure, yes; it is spry," said Granger, glancing round him in a nervous, anxious manner.

His daughter's strange demeanor and unusual gentleness by no means reassured him.

"What are you arter, Bet?" he said, as gruffly as he could manage to speak. "You don't bring honeyed words like them 'ere into this house for nothing. Tell out what you wants, and don't talk flummery."

"I wants you and Dent to take the shame off Will Scarlett," said Bet. "There's no flummery there-that's my meaning, spoke out plain. You two ha' put shame on Will, and cast him into prison, and I want you to take him out again, and lift the shameful lie off him. That's all-it ain't much, and it 'ull be the better for your souls-ef you have any souls-that you should do it."

Granger burst into a loud laugh.

"You have the cheek!" he said. "And for you to wed him, I suppose, the werry minute as he gets his liberty! No, no, Bet-none of that. I ain't much-for sure I ain't much; but a gel brought up in Sparrer Street shan't wed with no thief. There-I'm going out. I know nought about Will Scarlett. Neither Dent nor me could open his prison doors for him. You talk rubbish, Bet, and I'm 'shamed to hear you. I'm going out-you can set by the fire as long as you pleases, or you can go back to Paradise Row."

Granger turned to the door. But Bet was before him. She turned the key in the lock and put it in her pocket.

"No, no, father; you don't go out until you hear my terms," she said.

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