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   Chapter 17 IN THE CITY

An Australian Lassie By Lilian Turner Characters: 11585

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The fortune seekers were set down at a street corner near the Quay at half-past six.

When it had come to the matter of crossing the harbour, from the Northern Shore to the Quay, in the punt (they two sitting in the cart the while), they had found themselves called upon to pay a penny each for the passage over, which they had enjoyed amazingly. Betty paid both pennies, having the coppers, but she urged John to be quick and get his shilling changed to pay her back.

At the street corner John suggested leaving her for awhile. "This would be as good a corner as any other for you, Betty," he said, and slapped the shutters of a chemist's shop as he spoke, "You stand here, and you'll catch everybody who goes by."

"There's no one going by yet," said Betty. "What are you going to do? You're not going to leave me all alone?"

"Well," said John, "we might stick together a bit longer, anyway. I'll come back for you. You sing your song, and I'll just go and see if any shops want a boy. I don't suppose the offices are opened yet. What I'd like is a good warehouse, and then I'd rise to be manager, and partner. That's the sort of thing. I don't think there's much in a shop after all, but I'll have to find out where the warehouses are. A tea warehouse is good, I can tell you. You get sent out to India for the firm, and then come back and are made a partner."

He started off, only to be stopped after he had gone a few steps, by Betty's voice calling, "Get your shilling changed, I want my penny"; to which he nodded.

Betty had the corner all to herself then. Down the street, and up the street, and down the side street, whichever way she craned her neck she could see no one.

It seemed to her a very good opportunity to try her powers. So she commenced. At first it must be confessed she made no more sound than she had done in talking to John. And the street was so used to voices that it did not open an eye.

Therefore Betty grew bolder, and forgot in singing that she was not at the bend in the old home-road, where she had practised once or twice since she had decided upon her career. Her voice rose clearly-shrilly-and sometimes she remembered the tune quite fairly. When she forgot it, she filled in what would have otherwise been a pause with a little bit out of any other tune that came into her head.

For those who would like to know the words of the song she was singing, and who may not have it among their mother's girlhood songs, as Betty had, it may be as well to copy them from the paper she held in her hand to refresh her memory from-

"Please give me a penny, sir; my mother dear is dead,

And, oh! I am so hungry, sir-a penny please for bread;

All day I have been asking, but no one heeds my cry,

Will you not give me something, or surely I must die?

"Please give me a penny, sir; you won't say 'no' to me,

Because I'm poor and ragged, sir, and oh! so cold you see;

We were not always begging-we once were rich like you,

But father died a drunkard, and mother she died too."

Chorus-

"Please give me a penny, sir; my mother dear is dead,

And, oh! I am so hungry, sir-a penny please for bread."

At the end of the first verse she found it necessary to run her eye over the paper before beginning the second.

Perhaps it was just as well for her serenity that she did not look up as she sang. For just as soon as her voice rose into anything approaching a tune-it was near the end of the first verse-a face looked down upon her from the corner window of the second story of the chemist's house.

It was a young face, early old-white and drawn and marked by the unmistakable lines of suffering.

Betty knew nothing about the trouble of the world in those days; nothing of suffering, nothing of sorrow. And the woman above her knew of all. She leaned over the window-sill and her eyes smiled pityingly as they rested on the small bared head.

She had been praying her morning prayer near the open window, begging for strength to bear her sorrows, and for as many as might be to be taken from her, when Betty's voice quavered right up to her window.

She looked down, and there was the small singer's curly brown head. She looked longer, and saw Betty clasp a bare foot in one hand and stand on one foot, drop the foot from her hand and reverse the action.

It was merely a habit of Betty's, but the woman found in it a sign that the child was worn and weary-worn and weary before seven o'clock in the morning.

She drew her dressing-gown around her, searched her dress pocket for her purse, and leaning out dropped sixpence upon the pavement close to the little singer.

Betty stopped at once and looked around her, down the street and around the corner; at the shop shutters and door, but never once so high as the windows.

The woman smiled to herself.

"Poor little mite," she said. "I must remember even the little children have their griefs! It should make me grumble less."

Betty ran along the street in the direction John had taken. She felt she must tell some one. Then, as a thought struck her, she ran back to the house, looked up to the second story and saw a smiling face, and then set off again, running down the street for John.

Not seeing him, she stopped at the next corner and examined her coin lovingly. Then she looked up at that corner window and began to sing again.

But this time her reward came from the street. Three bluejackets were walking down the street to the Quay, lurching over the pavement as they walked. The child's song touched and stirred that latent sentimentality of theirs.

Her "or surely I shall die," brought a silver threepence from one of them, and a copper from each of the others.

Betty felt wealthy now, beyond the dreams of avarice

. She had made a shilling in an hour!

She looked at the post office clock high up in the air there above her head, and it informed her that it was only a quarter past seven. Not eight o'clock yet! And she had made a shilling! Twelve pennies! As much as she received in six months by staying at home!

She sat down on the kerbstone to count her money, putting her feet in the dry gutter a la manière born. She made first of all a stack of her half-pennies, and then of her pennies. There were nine half-pennies, three pennies, a threepenny bit and a sixpence. The grand total she found was one and fourpence halfpenny. More than even John had started out with.

While she was thus like a small miser counting her money, a hand swooped suddenly down upon the heap of coppers and swept them away. Betty looked up to scream, but it was only John. And he warned her solemnly how easily such a dreadful theft could be committed.

"I wish to goodness the shops would open," he said discontentedly. "I'm beginning to want some breakfast, I can tell you."

Betty unfolded her hands and displayed her wealth of coin. "A shilling in an hour," she said, and John's look of surprised unbelief delighted her.

"You picked it up!" he said.

"Oh, I didn't!" cried Betty. "People gave it to me just for singing! A shilling an hour! I forget how much Madam S-- makes in an hour. I think its more than a pound!"

"Don't you want your breakfast?" asked John.

"Let's count how many hours in a day," said Betty, twisting about to see a clock, the high post office clock they were walking under now, and found it. "I want to make my fortune quickly and go home and surprise them. How much money is in a fortune, John?"

John considered deeply for a minute and then gave it as his idea that five hundred pounds was usually called a fortune.

"The child's song touched and stirred that latent sentimentality of theirs."

"That'll take a good bit of making," said Betty.

"Well, you didn't expect to make it in a day did you?" asked John roughly.

"Oh, no," said Betty cheerfully, "I was only wondering how many hours there are in a day-at a shilling an hour."

She began to count slowly on the fingers of one hand all the hours until seven o'clock at night, the first hour to be from eight till nine o'clock in the morning.

"Eleven hours!" she said. "That's eleven shillings! Eleven shillings, John. Oh, and one hour gone, that's twelve! Twelve shillings a day, just fancy, John! Oh, I'll soon be rich."

"But you couldn't sing every hour in the day," said sensible John, although his eyes plainly expressed admiration for her brilliant career. "Why, you'd get hoarse!"

"I only sang twice in this hour," said Betty; "the rest of the time I've just been counting my money and looking round me."

"But you mightn't make a shilling every hour," said John.

"But-some hours I may make more, so it's about equal."

"I wish we could have some breakfast," said John, reverting to his trouble. "I'm jolly hungry, I can tell you."

"So am I," said Betty. "Twelve shillings a day-six days in a week. Oh, can I sing on Sundays, John?"

"Hymns," quoth the boy.

"Um! I could sing 'Scatter seeds of kindness' and 'Yield not to temptation.' Um! I never thought of hymns. I think I'll sing hymns to-day as well, 'cause I'm not very sure of my song yet, and every now and then I have to stop to look at the words. Can I sing hymns on other days than Sundays, John?"

"Better not," said the cautious John; "better keep the proper things for the proper days. Well, Betty Bruce, if you're going to stay here all day, I'm not. I'm getting awfully hungry."

At last Betty's motherliness awoke.

"My poor John!" she said, "of course you're hungry. We'll go to a shop and get a really good breakfast. I wasn't thinking. When a person begins to make a lot of money, they generally forget other things, don't they?"

"Um!" said John, who had made nothing at all. "We'll go and get a good breakfast and then we'll be fit for anything, won't we. Come on."

They turned round the corner into King Street, and there to their delight found the shops one by one opening their eyes-drapers, chemist, fruiterers, and then at last a shop with cakes in the window.

The children stood at the door and peeped in. They saw myriads of white tables and a couple of sleepy looking girls. One girl held a broom and was leaning on its handle and surveying the stretch of floor to be swept. Her eyes at last went to the door, and Betty, seeing they had been observed walked slowly in, leaving John outside.

"No," said the girl, shaking her head.

"We want some breakfast," said Betty, and added "please," as her eyes fell on a trayful of pastry on the counter.

Again the girl shook her head.

"Can't give you any here," she said; "now run away."

Then Betty's face flushed; for though one may sing to earn an honest livelihood and competency, it is quite another thing to be taken for a beggar.

"We'll pay for it," she said, and then forgot her pride and urged, "Go on, we're so hungry! We've been walking about since five o'clock."

Something in the child's face touched the girl's heart. She herself had been up at half-past five and knew a great deal about poverty and privation.

"Well, come on then," she said. "Go and sit down at one of them tables and I'll fetch you something."

Betty ran to the door and called "John," in an ecstatic tone, "come on."

Then the two of them chose a table and sat down.

"Not porridge, please," called Betty to the girl. "Just cakes and things, and lemonade instead of tea. I'll pay the bill."

But John brought out his shilling.

"I'll pay for myself," he said grimly, "and I'll pay you back the penny I owe you, too."

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