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   Chapter 2 No.2

Exit Betty By Grace Livingston Hill Characters: 16597

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The girl came to a standstill abruptly and faced about, drawing away just a hair's-breadth from the detaining hand, and surveying her steadily, the boyish expression in her eyes changing to an amused calculation such as one would fancy a cowboy held up on his native plains by a stray lamb might have worn.

"What's the little old idea!" asked the girl coldly, her eyes narrowing as she studied the other girl in detail and attempted to classify her into the known and unknown quantities of her world. Her face was absolutely expressionless as far as any sign of interest or sympathy was concerned. It was like a house with the door still closed and a well-trained butler in attendance.

"I've got to get away from here at once before anybody sees me," whispered Betty excitedly, with a fearful glance behind her.

"Do you want me to call a cab for you?" sneered the girl on the sidewalk, with an envious glance at the white satin slippers.

"Oh, no! Never!" cried Betty, wringing her hands in desperation. "I want you to show me somewhere to go out of sight, and if you will I'd like you to walk a block or so with me so I won't be so-so conspicuous! I'm so frightened I don't know which way to go."

"What do you want to go at all for?" asked the girl bluntly, with the look of an inquisitor, and the intolerance of the young for its contemporary of another social class.

"Because I must!" said Betty with terror in her voice. "They're coming! Listen! Oh, help me quick! I can't wait to explain!"

Betty dashed out of the gate and would have started up the street but that a strong young arm came out like a flash and a firm young fist gripped her arm like a vise. The girl's keen ears had caught a sound of turning key and excited voices, and her quick eyes pierced the darkness of the narrow court and measured the distance back.

"Here! You can't go togged out like that!" she ordered in quite a different tone. She flung off her own long coat and threw it around the shrinking little white figure, then knelt and deftly turned up the long satin draperies out of sight and fixed them firmly with a pin extracted from somewhere about her person. Quickly she stood up and pulled off her rubbers, her eye on the long dark passageway whence came now the decided sound of a forcibly opened door and footsteps.

"Put these on, quick!" she whispered, lifting first one slippered foot and then the other and supporting the trembling Betty in her strong young arms, while she snapped on the rubbers.

Lastly, she jerked the rakish hat from her own head, crammed it down hard over the orange-wreathed brow and gave her strange protégée a hasty shove.

"Now beat it around that corner and wait till I come!" she whispered, and turning planted herself in an idle attitude just under the church window, craning her neck and apparently listening to the music. A second later an excited usher, preceded by the janitor, came clattering down the passageway.

"Have you seen any one go out of this gate recently?" asked the usher.

The girl, hatless and coatless in the chill November night, turned nonchalantly at the question, surveyed the usher coolly from the point of his patent leather shoes to the white gardenia in his buttonhole, gave his features a cursory glance, and then shook her head.

"There might have been an old woman come out a while back. Dressed in black, was she? I wasn't paying much attention. I think she went down the avenoo," she said, and stretched her neck again, standing on her tiptoes to view the wedding guests. Her interest suddenly became real, for she spied a young man standing in the church, in full view of the window, back against the wall with his arms folded, a fine handsome young man with pleasant eyes and a head like that of a young nobleman, and she wanted to make sure of his identity. He looked very much like the young lawyer whose office boy was her "gentleman friend." Just to make sure she gave a little spring from the sidewalk that brought her eyes almost on a level with the window and gave her a brief glimpse, enough to see his face quite clearly; then she turned with satisfaction to see that the janitor and the usher had gone back up the passageway, having slammed the gate shut. Without more ado the girl wheeled and hurried down the street toward the corner where Betty crouched behind a tree trunk, watching fearfully for her coming.

"Aw! You don't need to be that scared!" said the girl, coming up. "They've gone back. I threw 'em off the scent. Come on! We'll go to my room and see what to do. Don't talk! Somebody might recognize your voice. Here, we'll cut through this alley and get to the next block. It's further away and not so many folks passing."

Silently they hurried through the dark alley and down the next street, Betty holding the long cloak close that no gleam of her white satin might shine out and give away her secret, her heart beating like a trip hammer in her breast, her eyes filled with unshed tears, the last words of her stepmother ringing in her ears. Was she making her father ashamed? Her dear dead father! Was she doing the wrong thing? So long that thought had held her! But she could not go back now. She had taken an irrevocable step.

Her guide turned another corner abruptly and led her up some stone steps to the door of a tall, dingy brick house, to which she applied a latchkey.

The air of the gloomy hall was not pleasant. The red wall-paper was soiled and torn, and weird shadows flickered from the small gas taper that blinked from the ceiling. There were suggestions of old dinners, stale fried potatoes and pork in all the corners, and one moving toward the stairs seemed to stir them up and set them going again like old memories.

The stairs were bare and worn by many feet, and not particularly clean. Betty paused in dismay then hurried on after her hostess, who was mounting up, one, two, three flights, to a tiny hall bedroom at the back. A fleeting fear that perhaps the place was not respectable shot through her heart, but her other troubles were so great that it found no lodgment. Panting and trembling she arrived at the top and stood looking about her in the dark, while the other girl found a match and lighted another wicked little flickering gas-burner.

Then her hostess drew her into the room and closed and locked the door. As a further precaution she climbed upon a chair and pushed the transom shut.

"Now," she said with a sigh of evident relief, "we're safe! No one can hear you here, and you can say what you please. But first we'll get this coat and hat off and see what's the damage."

As gently as if she were undressing a baby the girl removed the hat and coat from her guest, and shook out the wonderful shining folds of satin. It would have been a study for an artist to have watched her face as she worked, smoothing out wrinkles, shaking the lace down and uncrushing it, straightening a bruised orange-blossom, and putting everything in place. It was as if she herself were an artist restoring a great masterpiece, so silently and absorbedly she worked, her eyes full of a glad wonder that it had come to her once to be near and handle anything so rare and costly. The very touch of the lace and satin evidently thrilled her; the breath of the exotic blossoms was nectar as she drew it in.

Betty was still panting from her climb, still trembling from her flight, and she stood obedient and meek while the other girl pulled and shook and brushed and patted her into shape again. When all was orderly and adjusted about the crumpled bride, the girl stood back as far as the limits of the tiny room allowed and surveyed the finished picture.

"There now! You certainly do look great! That there band of flowers round your forehead makes you look like some queen. 'Coronet'-ain't that what they call it? I read that once in a story at the Public Library. Say! Just to think I should pick that up in the street! Good night! I'm glad I came along just then instead o' somebody else! This certainly is some picnic! Well, now, give us your dope. It must've been pretty stiff to make you cut and run from a show like the one they got up for you! Come, tune up and let's hear the tale. I rather guess I'm entitled to know before

the curtain goes up again on this little old stage!"

The two tears that had been struggling with Betty for a long time suddenly appeared in her eyes and drowned them out, and in dismay she brought out a faint little sorry giggle of apology and amusement and dropped on the tiny bed, which filled up a good two-thirds of the room.

"Good night!" exclaimed the hostess in alarm, springing to catch her. "Don't drop down that way in those glad rags! You'll finish 'em! Come, stand up and we'll get 'em off. You look all in. I'd oughta known you would be!" She lifted Betty tenderly and began to remove her veil and unfasten the wonderful gown. It seemed to her much like helping an angel remove her wings for a nap. Her eyes shone with genuine pleasure as she handled the hooks deftly.

"But I've nothing else to put on!" gurgled Betty helplessly.

"I have!" said the other girl.

"Oh!" said Betty with a sudden thought. "I wonder! Would you be willing to exchange clothes? Have you perhaps got some things you don't need that I could have, and I'll give you mine for them? I don't suppose perhaps a wedding dress would be very useful unless you're thinking of getting married soon, but you could make it over and use it for the foundation of an evening dress--"

The other girl was carefully folding the white satin skirt at the moment, but she stopped with it in her arms and sat down weakly on the foot of the bed with it all spread out in her lap and looked at her guest in wonder:

"You don't mean you wantta give it up!" she said in an awed tone. "You don't mean you would be willing to take some of my old togs for it?"

"I certainly would!" cried Betty eagerly. "I never want to see these things again! I hate them! And besides, I want to get away somewhere. I can't go in white satin! You know that! But I don't like to take anything of yours that you might need. Do you think these things would be worth anything to you? You weren't thinking of getting married yourself some time soon, were you?"

"Well, I might," said the other girl, looking self-conscious. "I got a gentleman friend. But I wasn't expectin' to get in on any trooso like this!" She let her finger move softly over the satin hem as if she had been offered a plume of the angel's wing. "Sure, I'll take it off you if I've got anything you're satisfied to have in exchange. I wouldn't mind havin' it to keep jest to look at now and then and know it's mine. It'd be somethin' to live for, jest to know you had that dress in the house!"

Suddenly Betty, without any warning even to herself, dropped upon her knees beside the diminutive bed and began to weep. It seemed somehow so touching that a thing like a mere dress could make a girl glad like that. All the troubles of the days that were past went over her in a great wave of agony, and overwhelmed her soul. In soft silk and lace petticoat and camisole with her pretty white arms and shoulders shaking with great sobs she buried her face in the old patchwork quilt that her hostess had brought from her village home, and gave way to a grief that had been long in growing. The other girl now thoroughly alarmed, laid the satin on a chair and went over to the little stranger, gathering her up in a strong embrace, and gradually lifting her to the bed.

"You poor little Kid, you! I oughtta known better! You're just all in! You ben gettin' ready to be married, and something big's been troubling you, and I bet they never gave you any lunch-er else you wouldn't eat it,-and you're jest natcheraly all in. Now you lie right here an' I'll make you some supper. My name's Jane Carson, and I've got a good mother out to Ohio, and a nice home if I'd had sense enough to stay in it; only I got a chance to make big money in a fact'ry. But I know what 'tis to be lonesome, an' I ain't hard-hearted, if I do know how to take care of misself. There! There!"

She smoothed back the lovely hair that curled in golden tendrils where the tears had wet it.

"Say, now, you needn't be afraid! Nobody'll getcha here! I know how to bluff 'em. Even if a policeman should come after yeh, I'd get around him somehow, and I don't care what you've done or ain't done, I'll stand by yeh. I'm not one to turn against anybody in distress. My mother always taught me that. After you've et a bite and had a cup of my nice tea with cream and sugar in it you'll feel better, and we'll have a real chin-fest and hear all about it. Now, you just shut your eyes and wait till I make that tea."

Jane Carson thumped up the pillow scientifically to make as many of the feathers as possible and shifted the little flower-head upon it. Then she hurried to her small washstand and took a little iron contrivance from the drawer, fastening it on the sickly gas-jet. She filled a tiny kettle with water from a faucet in the hall and set it to boil. From behind a curtain in a little box nailed to the wall she drew a loaf of bread, a paper of tea and a sugar-bowl. A cup and saucer and other dishes appeared from a pasteboard box under the washstand. A small shelf outside the tiny window yielded a plate of butter, a pint bottle of milk, and two eggs. She drew a chair up to the bed, put a clean handkerchief on it, and spread forth her table. In a few minutes the fragrance of tea and toast pervaded the room, and water was bubbling happily for the eggs. As cosily as if she had a chum to dine with her she sat down on the edge of the bed and invited her guest to supper. As she poured the tea she wondered what her co-laborers at the factory would think if they knew she had a real society lady visiting her. It wasn't every working girl that had a white satin bride thrust upon her suddenly this way. It was like a fairy story, having a strange bride lying on her bed, and everything a perfect mystery about her. She eyed the white silk ankles and dainty slippers with satisfaction. Think of wearing underclothes made of silk and real lace!

It seemed to Betty as if never before in all her life had she tasted anything so delicious as that tea and toast and soft boiled egg cooked by this wonderful girl on a gaslight and served on a chair. She wanted to cry again over her gladness at being here. It didn't seem real after all the trouble she had been through. It couldn't last! Oh, of course it couldn't last!

This thought came as she swallowed the last bite of toast, and she sat up suddenly!

"I ought to be doing something quick!" she said in sudden panic. "It is getting late and I must get away. They'll be watching the trains, perhaps. I ought to have gone at once. But I don't know where I can go. Give me some old things, please. I must get dressed at once."

"Lie down first and tell me who you are and what it's all about. I can't do a thing for you till I know. I've got to go into this with my eyes open or I won't stir one step," she declared stubbornly.

Betty looked at her with wide eyes of trouble and doubt. Then the doubt suddenly cleared away, and trust broke through.

"I can trust you, I'm sure! You've been so good to me! But it seems dreadful to tell things about my family, even to one who has been so kind. My father would be so hurt--"

"Your father? Where is your father? Why didn't he take care of you and keep you from getting into such big trouble, I'd like to know?"

The blue eyes clouded with tears again.

"My father died five years ago," she said, "but I've always tried to do as he would want to have me do. Only-this-I couldn't."

"H'm!" said Jane Carson. "Then he prob'ly wouldn't of wanted you to. Suppose you take the rest of those togs off. I'll find you a warm nightgown and we'll get to bed. It's turning cold here. They take the heat off somewhere about six o'clock in the evening, and it gets like ice up here sometimes."

Jane shivered and went to her small trunk, from which she produced a coarse but clean flanellete nightgown, and Betty, who had never worn anything but a dainty lingerie one before in all her life, crept into it thankfully and cuddled down with a warm feeling that she had found a real friend. It was curious why she did not shrink from this poor girl, but she did not, and everything looked clean and nice. Besides, this was a wonderful haven of refuge in her dire necessity.

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