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   Chapter 23 No.23

A Girl of the People By L. T. Meade Characters: 9658

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:06


It sometimes happens that a very valiant and resolute spirit is contained in a small body. Bet Granger's little brothers, known in the slums as the captain and the general, were as thin, as lanky, as under-grown little chaps as could be found in Liverpool. Not a scrap of superfluous flesh had they, and certainly not an iota of superfluous growth. They were under-fed, under-sized; but nevertheless brave spirits shone out of their eyes, and valiant and even martial ideas animated their small frames. The "Cap'n" and the "Gen'ral" were considered so plucky by the other boys-and girls of the neighborhood that as a rule they were asked to take the command in a fight, and to assume leading and distinguished positions in a general fray. Most valiantly then would they strike out left or right-regardless of black eyes, indifferent to bumps or blows. They looked like little furies on these occasions, and the other children applauded and admired. It was well known in Sparrow Street, and it was even beginning to be recognized as a certain fact in Paradise Row, that when both the captain and the general were engaged together in one encounter there was not the smallest chance of the opposite side winning.

These untrained and somewhat desperate little bravos had also certain instincts which taught them to espouse the cause of those weaker than themselves: and it was often a ludicrous as well as a pathetic sight to see these small champions leading the van, and eagerly supporting girls and boys a great deal bigger than themselves. Their mother had certainly told them that fighting was sinful; but it was the breath of life to them, and when Thady was once asked what he liked best in the world, he answered promptly, "Punchin' another feller's head." These small boys were quite little braves in their way; but, as there is a weak point in the most invincible armor, so were there conditions under which the general and his gallant captain would undoubtedly show the white feather. There was a presence which could effectually quench the ardor of two pairs of keen eyes, could cause two little faces to blanch to an unwholesome and sickly hue, could cause two little hearts to beat anxiously, and could so affect the moral equilibrium of two very steadfast little souls, that lies would fall glibly from their lips, and the coward's weapons of deceit and subterfuge would be gladly used by them in self-defence.

It was a father who had this effect upon his children; and the torturing and ruining of these young child-lives was being effected in the civilized England of our nineteeth century. Granger represented a not too uncommon type of man, and Nat and Thady did not suffer more than hundreds of other boys when exposed to his influence.

On the morning after Bet had written her letter to Will, she rose early, and was preparing to go to the police-court, to look her last on her lover, when the door of their one little room in Sparrow Street was burst rudely open, and Granger, his face red and bloated, and his whole manner indicating that he had reached the quarrelsome stage of insobriety, entered the room with heavy strides. He was a big man, powerfully made, and when in his present condition even Bet thought it wisest to let him alone. He entered the room and glared about him savagely. A great deal of this manner was put on, for he was acting a part under Dent's instructions; but none of his children knew this, and when striding across the room, he caught the poor little blue-eyed captain by his ragged collar, the boy uttered a scream, and the general, basely deserting his brother, rushed to Bet for protection.

"Give up that lad," shouted Granger, hoarsely. "I want the two of 'em. They are my lads, and you have played the fool with 'em long enough. I have got work as 'ull suit them, away in Warrington, and I'm going to take 'em by an early train. There-hands off, Bet-give me the lads." "Never," cried Bet. She looked like a wild creature about to be deprived of her young. Holding one arm firmly round the general, she gripped the little captain by the other hand.

"Gi' them up to me, father! You shan't have them-you shan't touch them-there! What do you mean? You take 'em away to work at I knows not what?-and they no more nor seven years old! Let 'em be-they're my lads, and you shan't harm a hair of their heads."

The boys clung to her, with white faces. The man, savage and amazed at this unexpected resistance, stood wavering for an instant. At that moment it seemed to Bet as if a thousand furies possessed her, and a thousand strengths were given to her. All the accumulated anguish of the past week seemed to gather vehemence now, and to lend iron force to her muscular arms. She wrenched the little captain quite away from the red-faced, bloated man; and then, bo

th arms freed for a moment, she actually pushed him before her to the door, and, before he could utter a word, or collect his scattered forces, she locked him out.

"There! lads," she said, turning round with a triumphant half laugh, "you see as Bet's as good as her word."

"You're a born fighter," said the captain, in a tone of admiration. He recovered his spirits and his courage on the spot, and in a few moments he and the general were amusing themselves in acting the scene which Bet had just gone through.

"Boys," said their sister's voice, after ten minutes had passed, and no attack been made on the door, she concluded that Granger had for the present withdrawn himself-"Boys, I'm a wanting to go out."

"Oh, no, Bet, no-father'll come back."

"But the door's werry strong. I'll lock it from the outside, and make off with the key. I won't be long, boys; I'm a hungered to see somebody-my heart draws me, and I'm in pain. You won't be in any danger, dear lads, and I'll be back werry soon. I jest want to set eyes on one face that I'll never see no more. You won't be afeard, ef there's a locked door between you and father."

The rare tears which scarcely ever came to her stood in Bet's eyes.

"No, we won't be afeard," said the captain, running up to his sister-"there ain't nought to be afeard of. You're wanting to see your sweetheart-ain't yer, Bet?"

"No," said Bet, with an almost-cry-"I han't got a sweetheart now. All the same, I hungers for the sight of a face. And I'll be back soon. Don't you be fretting, lads. There'll be a locked door atween you and harm."

She wrapped her shawl about her, waited for no further words, locked the door on the little prisoners, and rushed downstairs. As she said, her heart was drawing her. Nothing but that passionate hunger would have caused her to forsake the children at this supreme moment. The house was intensely quiet, for most of the lodgers had gone out on their day's avocations. Not a sign of Granger was to be seen.

Bet walked fast, and presently reached the police-court, where Will was to be tried. A crowd of people were waiting outside; a few policemen stood about. The doors of the building were not yet open. Bet saw Hester Wright standing very near the entrance. She made an effort to get to her, and called her name over the heads of the crowd; but Hester, after looking at her coldly, turned her back without making any response. This action cut Bet to the quick. She found the tears again springing to her eyes. Oh! for one glance, if only the last, of Will's kind face. The minutes dragged themselves along; the crowd increased; but as the right hour had not yet come, the doors remained fast shut. At last, at the stroke of ten, they were opened, and Bet was pressing in with the rest, when she felt a hand laid heavily on her arm. She turned, to see the coarse black-eyed girl who had bought her beat from Granger.

"Ef I was you, I'd go home, Bet," said the girl.

"You mind your own business," said Bet, shaking her off roughly.

"Well-there's a mischief brewing, and I saw what I saw. Don't you say as you wasn't warned; and ef the two little chaps come to grief, it ain't Louisa Perkins' fault."

These last words alarmed Bet.

"Say out yer say at once," she answered, clutching the girl now, and forcing her back against the crowd who were pushing their way into the building,-"say your say and have done," she repeated. "What has come to the lads? I left them safe not an hour agone."

"I saw Granger making off with them."

"You didn't-that's a lie! I left them locked up safe in my room."

"Granger was hurrying off with them," repeated Louisa, "werry red in the face, and mad like. The captain was crying, and t'other chap had a red mark down his cheek-it's not a quarter of an hour by St. Giles' clock as I saw him."

"Where was they going?" asked Bet. "Tell me quick, or I'll shake you."

"Down Castle Street, making for Lime Street and the railway station, I expect."

Bet ceased to push inwards with the crowd. They went past her, and the little police-court was soon filled to overflowing. Isaac Dent almost rubbed against her shoulder as he went by. He winked at Louisa, but Bet never noticed him.

"Hester-Hester Wright!" she suddenly called out.

Hester had not yet gone into the police-court. She was standing against one of the posts of the door, watching the crowd as they filed past.

"Hester!" repeated Bet. "Hetty-Hetty! Come and speak to me for a minute! I must go, but I want to send a message. Just one word, Hetty,-Hetty, come!"

Perhaps Hester did not hear. At any rate, she neither turned nor heeded. Bet gave a low despairing cry; then, flinging her shawl off her shoulders, she ran as fast as if there were wings to her feet in the direction of Sparrow Street.

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