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   Chapter 19 THE BENT-SHOULDERED OLD GENTLEMAN

An Australian Lassie By Lilian Turner Characters: 9172

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Let's go somewhere and count my money," said Betty, when she had watched the last pupil of Westmead House disappear down the long avenue. "You see I easily make a shilling an hour, don't I?"

John admitted she had chosen a good paying profession; and that if "things" didn't improve with him very soon he should try singing in the frequent spare moments of his errands running.

The day wore on, and although it must be recorded that Betty did not always make a shilling an hour, her "takings" were very fair, considering many things, notably her lack of voice and great shyness so soon as anything approaching an audience gathered around her.

"Only a little barefooted girl asleep-fast asleep upon his lounge."

By six o'clock a great weariness had crept over her. Unused to city pavements, her limbs ached wofully, her feet were blistered and swollen, her head ached from the noises of the busy city, and her heart ached for her little white bed at home. For the day was growing old and it was almost bed-time.

Presently the stars stole out and began to play at hide and seek, and Betty who had finished counting her money again, was still standing tiredly on one foot at the corner of Market and George Streets, waiting for John-John who had promised to be with her at six; and now it was after seven and he had not come.

The tears were too near for her to attempt to wile away the minutes with another song-tears of weariness and disappointment. The disappointment was caused by the non-arrival of the keen-eyed, bent-shouldered old gentleman who was to raise her eventually to the pinnacle of fame-and by John's absence.

It was just as this great matter was straining her heart almost to breaking point that a heavy hand fell upon her shoulders, and she looked up into the face of a roughly clad, ill-kempt looking man-a face that in some way seemed familiar to her.

"I b'lieve you're the very little girl as I've been on the look-out for all day," he said. "Le's look at you! Yes, s'elp my Jimmy Johnson, you are! If you'll just come along with me, we'll talk about your name an' a few other things."

He held out his hand and took hers.

"Your name," he said, "as it ain't John Brown, may be Elizabeth Bruce. Ain't I right now?"

Betty tremblingly admitted that he was, and listened as she walked the length of a street by his side to his jocularly spoken lecture and to all the dire happenings-gaols, reformatories, ships, etc.-that befell she or he who left the home nest before such glorious time as they were twenty-one.

Finally Betty and her earnings were placed in a cab, and the man, holding her arm firmly, stepped in after her. He seemed to be afraid, all the time, that if he moved his hand from her she would be off and away. They rattled down the Sydney streets in the lamplight, which Betty had never seen before this night, to the harbour waters and across them in a punt, and the little girl thought tiredly of her journey in the greengrocer's cart not so very many hours ago.

The remembrance brought with it a flash of light. This man by her side was the greengrocer!-their morning friend. She decided that she would soon ask him about John, ask him whether he had found John also.

But before she could satisfactorily arrange her question a great heaviness settled down upon her, and her head nodded and her eyes blinked and blinked and fell too. And all thought of money-making and street-singing, and John Brown slipped away and left her in a merry land of dreams playing with Cyril and Nancy in the old home garden.

"Poor little mite," said the man, and he slipped his roughly clad arm around her and drew her towards him so that her head might rest on his coat. "Poor little mite! She'd find the world but a rough place, I'm thinking!"

And they sped onwards into the hill country where Betty's home was, and John's, and the little school-house and the white church and the wonderful corner shop. Only they stopped before they came to Betty's home, stopped at the great iron gates of her grandfather's dwelling, drove through them and up the dark gum tree shaded path.

The man, carrying the sleeping child in his arms, walked straight into the hall, to the huge astonishment of the sober man-servant who had opened the door.

"I'll wait here for yer master," he said.

The hall was wide and square, and contained besides three deck-chairs, a cane lounge covered with cushions.

Perhaps the man had some eye for dramatic effect, perhaps it was only accident, but he placed Betty carefully upon the cushions, a

nd put a crimson-covered one under her dark curly head. Then he withdrew to the door.

It was not likely that, having worked hard for his reward, he was about to forego it. But he told himself that "his room would be better than his company" while the rejoicings over her recovery were going on.

The captain came through the door slowly. One hour ago a policeman had arrived in a cab with John-and had departed with a substantial reward in his pocket. During the last hour the captain had heard John's story-thrashed him with his own hands, and sent him to bed.

Now he was "wanted in the hall by a man with a little girl."

But there was no man visible in the hall, only a little barefooted girl asleep-fast asleep upon his lounge. He could hear her breathing, see her face, and he knew in a moment who she was.

He looked sharply at her, back to the door which was closed, forward to the front door which was drawn to, and around the empty hall.

Then slowly and as if fearful of being caught he went nearer to the sofa, and looked down at this little creature-blood of his blood-who had appeared before him again. Her lashes lay still on her rosy sun-tanned cheeks, her curly hair was in confusion upon the red cushion, her bare feet were upon another. Such a pretty tired child she looked although she was but a tattered and soiled representative of the small pink-bonneted maiden he had seen only the other day.

He knew the story of her "career" now, and of her desire to be a self-made woman. John had told him about her in speaking of his own ambition. The captain's slow mind went back to the time when his own "career" had been forced upon him, when he had only too often "slept out." And as remembrance after remembrance awoke, his heart warmed strangely to this brown-haired girl who seemed to be always stumbling into his pathway.

Dirty, ragged imp as she was, that strange inexplicable sense of kinship stirred within him. Stirred as it had never stirred towards alien John, who was after all only the son of his first love's son, with no blood of his at all in him; stirred as it had stirred towards no one living since his daughter had left him more than seventeen years ago.

He put out one hand and touched her hair (she could not know, no one could know, of course)-his only daughter's little child!

And Betty slept on. Had she but known it, a bent-shouldered old gentleman, who might have exerted a wonderful influence over her whole life, was at that moment looking at her with softened eyes. But great possibilities are frequently blighted by small importunities.

The greengrocer chose this moment to open the front door and look into the hall, and the captain saw him, started, and lost his feeling of kinship for the sleeper.

"Good evenin'," said the greengrocer blandly, "I found her about an hour ago, an' came straight 'ome with her."

Captain Carew explained briefly that his boy had been returned to him about an hour ago, and that the promised reward had been given on his behalf to the policeman.

The man looked crestfallen.

"My wife told me," he said, "when I come back from the markets. She said somebody had lost a boy, and you had lost a girl. And your reward was the biggest, so I went for the girl."

Captain Carew put his hand in his pocket, and shook his head. To pay for Betty seemed to him to be publicly claiming her. Yet he could not help being glad that she was found.

"And she ain't nothin' to you?" said the man, most evidently disappointed.

"Nothing!" said Captain Carew firmly; "but I hear that she ran away with my boy-to make her fortune. She lives, I believe, in a small weather-board cottage a few yards further on."

He felt much stronger after he had spoken that sentence. Of course she was nothing to him. He walked to his library, and then looked over his shoulder, and saw the man just stooping over the little girl again. And then, for no reason at all, of course, he put his hand into his pocket again, drew out a sovereign and gave it to the man.

"To make up for your mistake," he said.

Then he went away and shut the library door, while the two went away.

"Little baggage!" he said, "she's nothing to me. John's the only grandchild I ever want."

But he had an uncomfortable feeling that he had owned her.

An hour later, on his way through the hall to his bedroom; he found a soiled crumpled piece of paper on the cane lounge, and opening it, read-"Please give me a penny, sir!"

"The little vagabond!" he muttered. But he put the paper into his pocket.

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