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- A Girl of the People - 1/32 -
A GIRL OF THE PEOPLE
L. T. MEADE
"You have kept us waiting an age! Come along, Bet, do."
"She ain't going to funk it, surely!"
"No, no, not she,--she's a good 'un, Bet is,--come along, Bet. Joe Wilkins is waiting for us round the corner, and he says Sam is to be there, and Jimmy, and Hester Wright: do come along, now."
"Will Hester Wright sing?" suddenly demanded the girl who was being assailed by all these remarks.
"Yes, tip-top, a new song from one of the music halls in London. Now then, be you coming or not, Bet?"
"No, no, she's funking it," suddenly called out a dancing little sprite of a newspaper girl. She came up close to Bet as she spoke, and shook a dirty hand in her face, and gazed up at her with two mirthful, teasing, wicked black eyes. "Bet's funking it,--she's a mammy's girl,--she's tied to her mammy's apron-strings, he-he-he!"
The other girls all joined in the laugh; and Bet, who was standing stolid and straight in the centre of the group, first flushed angrily, then turned pale and bit her lips.
"I ain't funking," she said; "nobody can ever say as there's any funk about me,--there's my share. Good-night."
She tossed a shilling on to the pavement, and before the astonished girls could intercept her, turned on her heel and marched away.
A mocking laugh or two floated after her on the night air, then the black-eyed girl picked up the shilling, said Bet was a "good 'un, though she wor that contrairy," and the whole party set off singing and shouting, up the narrow street of this particular Liverpool slum.
Bet, when she left her companions, walked quickly in the direction of the docks; the pallor still continued on her brown cheeks, and a dazed expression filled her heavy eyes.
"They clinched it when they said I wor a mammy's girl," she muttered. "There ain't no funk in me, but there was a look about mother this morning that I couldn't a-bear. No, I ain't a mammy's girl, not I. There was never nought so good about me, and I have give away my last shilling,--flung it into the gutter. Well, never mind. I ain't tied to nobody's apron-strings--no, not I. Wish I wor, wish I wor."
She walked on, not too fast, holding herself very stiff and erect now. She was a tall girl, made on a large and generous scale, her head was well set on a pair of shapely shoulders, and her coils of red-brown hair were twisted tightly round her massive head.
"Bet," said a young lad, as he rushed up the street--"ha-ha, handsome Bet, give us a kiss, will ye?"
Bet rewarded him with a smart cuff across his face, and marched on, more defiant than ever.
As she paused at a certain door a sweet-looking girl with a white face, dressed in the garb of a Sister, came out.
"Ah, Elizabeth, I am glad you have arrived," she said. "I have just left your mother; she has been crying for you, and--and--she is very ill indeed."
"Oh, I know that, Sister Mary; let me go upstairs now."
Bet pushed past the girl almost rudely, and ascended the dark rickety stairs with a light step. Her head was held very far back, and in her eyes there was a curious mixture of defiance, softness and despair. Two little boys, with the same reddish-brown hair as hers, were playing noisily on the fourth landing. They made a rush at Bet when they saw her, climbed up her like little cats, and half strangled her with their thin half-naked arms.
"Bet, Bet, I say, mother's awful bad. Bet, speak to Nat; he stole my marble, he did. Fie on you, Cap'n; you shouldn't have done it."
"I like that!" shouted the ragged boy addressed as "Cap'n." "You took it from me first, you know you did, Gen'ral."
"If mother's bad, you shouldn't make a noise," said Bet, flinging the two little boys away, with no particular gentleness. "There, of course I'll kiss you, Gen'ral--poor little lad. Go down now and play on the next landing, and keep quiet for the next ten minutes if it's in you."
"Bet," whispered the youngest boy, who was known as "Cap'n," "shall I tell yer what mother did this morning?"
"No, no; I don't want to hear--go downstairs and keep quiet, _do._"
"Oh, yer'll be in such a steaming rage! She burnt yer book, yer _Jane Eyre_ as yer wor reading--lor, it were fine--the bit as you read to the Gen'ral and me, but she said as it wor a hell-fire book, and she burnt it--I seed her, and so did the Gen'ral--she pushed it between the bars with the poker. She got up in her night-things to do it, and then she got back to bed again, and she panted for nearly an hour after--didn't she, Gen'ral?"
"Yes--yes--come along, come along. Look at Bet! she's going to strike some 'un--look at her; didn't we say as she'd be in a steaming rage. Come, Cap'n."
The little boys scuttled downstairs, shouting and tumbling over one another in their flight. Bet stood perfectly still on the landing. The boys were right when they said she would be in a rage; her heart beat heavily, her face was white, and for an instant she pressed her forehead against the door of her mother's room and clenched her teeth.
The book burnt! the poor book which had given her pleasure, and which she had saved up her pence to buy--the book which had drawn her out of herself, and made her forget her wretched surroundings, committed to the flames--ignominiously destroyed, and called bad names, too. How dared her mother do it? how dared she? The girls were right when they said she was tied to apron-strings--she was, she was! But she would bear it no longer. She would show her mother that she would submit to no leading--that she, Elizabeth Granger, the handsomest newspaper girl in Liverpool, was a woman, and her own mistress.
"She oughtn't to have done it," half-groaned Bet "The poor book! And I'll never know now what's come to Jane and Rochester--I'll never know. It cuts me to the quick. Mother oughtn't to take pleasure from one like that, but it's all of a piece. Well, I'll go in and say 'good night' to her, and then I'll go back to the girls. I'm sorry I've lost my evening's spree, but I can hear Hester Wright sing, leastways; and mebbe she'll let me walk home with her."
With one hand Bet brushed something like moisture from her eyes; with the other she opened the door of her mother's room, and went in. Her entrance was noisy, and as she stood on the threshold her expression was defiant. Then all in a second the girl's face changed; a soft, troubled, hungry look filled her eyes; she glided forward without even making the boards creak. In Bet's absence the room had undergone a transformation. A bright fire burned in a carefully polished grate; in front of the hearth a thick knitted rug was placed; the floor was tidy, the two or three rickety chairs were in order, the wooden mantel-piece was free of dust. Over her mother's bed a soft crimson counterpane was thrown, and her mother, half sitting up, rested her white face against the snowy pillows. A little table stood near the bedside, which contained some cordial in a glass. The sick woman's long thin hands lay outside the crimson counterpane, and her eyes, dark and wistful, were turned in the direction of the door. Bet went straight up to the bed: the transformation in the room was nothing to her; she saw it, and guessed quickly that Sister Mary had done it; but the look, the changed look on her mother's face, was everything. She forgot her own wrongs and the burnt book; her heart was filled with a wild fear, a dreary sense of coming desolation seized her, and clasping her mother's long thin fingers in her own brown strong hands, she bent down and whispered in a husky voice,
The woman looked up and smiled.
"You've come back, Bet?" she said. "Give me a drop of the cordial. I'm glad you've come back. I thought it might have been the will of Him who knows best that I should die without seeing of you again, Elizabeth."
"Oh, no, mother--of course I've come back. I hurried home. I didn't stay for nobody. How nice the room looks, mother--and the kettle boils. I'll make you a cup o' tea."
"No, Bet, I don't want it; stoop down, and look at me. Bet, look me in the eyes--oh, my girl, my girl!"
Bet gazed unflinchingly at her mother. The two faces were somewhat alike--the same red gleam in the brown eyes, the same touch of red on the abundant hair; but one face was tired, worn out, and the other was fresh and full and plump. Both faces had certain lines of hardness, certain indications of stormy, troublous souls looking through the eyes, and speaking on the lips.
"I'm going to die, Bet; Fin going back to the good God," panted Mrs. Granger." he doctor have been, and he says mebbe it'll last till morning, mebbe not. I'm going back to Him as knows best,--it's a rare sight of good fortune for me, ain't it?"
"I don't believe you're going to die," said Bet. She spoke harshly, in an effort to subdue the emotion which was making her tremble all over. "Doctors are allays a-frightening folks. Have a cup o' tea, mother?"
"It don't frighten me, Bet," said Mrs. Granger. "I'm going away, and He's coming to fetch me; I ain't afeard. I never seemed more of a poor sort of a body than I do to-night, but somehow I ain't afeard. When
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