"That'll do; now let's pack. We must be out of this room in ten minutes."
The three flew about, Bet putting her own small possessions and the boys' scanty wardrobe into an old shawl of her mother's. It took far less than ten minutes to make a bundle of the poor possessions. At the last moment Bet went over to the bed, laid her head face downwards on her mother's pillow, and reverently kissed the place where the dead cold head had rested.
"That's a seal to my promise," she whispered; and then, slinging the bundle across her shoulder, she again took the boys' hands and went downstairs.
At the entrance to the house she met her landlord, a man of the name of Bounce.
"Ah, my dear, and where are you off to?" he said, in his most facetious voice.
"I am going away, Mr. Bounce," replied Bet, gravely; "you can tell my father—he'll be in presently—as I ain't a-coming back. Neither me nor the boys is a-coming back. Good-bye."
She did not wait for the landlord's surprised answer, but his rude laugh floated after her down the street.
There are slums and slums in Liverpool, as elsewhere, and Sparrow street, which Bet had left, seemed by contrast to Paradise Row, which she presently entered, a thoroughly respectable, indeed genteel, place of residence. Paradise Row was not very far from the river. It was entered by a court, court of not more than twenty feet square. Under one of the houses there was an archway, and it was only through this archway that any one could approach Paradise Row, This charming and most suitably-named place of residence consisted of twenty houses at one side of the street and twenty at the other. The houses were high, and the street between was not more than ten feet across. There were no pathways, and no apparent drains of any sort. The houses got closer together as they approached the sky, so that it would not be impossible for an agile person in case of pursuit to throw a board across from his window to the one opposite, and so effect an escape. There were not a great many panes of glass in the windows—rags and pieces of board taking the place of this precious commodity. It was an evil-looking-place, and the two little boys, accustomed as they were to a very rough life, looked at Bet in some surprise as she led them there.
"This is a rum go," whispered the general under his breath; but the little blue-eyed captain was silent, drawing himself up very erect, and trying to imitate his sister's stately carriage.
Presently Bet paused at a door, and went in.
"Is Mother Bunch in her room?" she asked a red-haired unkempt-looking boy, who, with a short pipe in his mouth, was leaning against the doorway. He did not trouble himself to remove the pipe, but pointed in the direction of a certain door. Bet went forward, and opened it without knocking. A very stout woman of between fifty and sixty was standing before a wash-tub. Her arms were bare to the elbows, and covered with suds. Her blue winsey petticoat was tucked up above her ankles; her large feet were destitute of shoes and stockings. She had a broad face, a snub nose, and two twinkling good-humored eyes. Notwithstanding her dirt-and she was very dirty-the first glance into her face gave one a certain feeling of comfort and confidence. This was curious; for Mother Bunch had the loudest tongue and the most stalwart arm in Paradise Row; she was, in short, the terror of the place and the adjacent neighborhood. Bet, however, approached her without a particle of fear; she knew that Mother Bunch was a good friend as well as a good foe.
"I ha' come," she said, going straight up to her. "And here are the boys. This one is Cap'n, and this one is Gen'ral. They're rare 'uns for fighting, poor lads; and they ain't cowards. Have you got the room for us, Mother Bunch?"
"To be sure, honey," replied Mother Bunch, wiping her arms, and smiling broadly at Bet. "And indeed, and indeed, it's the truth I'm telling you, love, when I say that not a purtier or nicer little room could be found in the whole of the Row. You come along o' me, me dears-oh, and it's chape as dirt you're getting it, love!"
The burly Irishwoman panted and rolled her-self upstairs. Bet came next, carrying her bundle, and the boys followed in the rear. The stairs were slippery, and dark, and broken—full of dangers and pitfalls to all but the most wary.
"Jump across here, love," said Mother Bunch; "there's a hole two feet wide just by this corner, and you'd drop into the cellar ef you worn't careful. Oh, glory! but my breath's nearly gone—I'm bate entirely. I'm letting you the room chape as dirt, Bet Granger, 'cos I've took a fancy to you, honey; and that's as true as my name is Molly O'Flaherty. 'Tis the Irish you have about you here, love—'tis them as is thrue to the backbone as is your neighbors, dear. Fight for you! honey,—oh, yes, we'll fight. Them boys, why they're Mother Bunch's boys now. There, honey, there's your room, and as purty an attic as heart could wish. A shilling a week! Why, it's chaper than dirt! Now then, I must go back to hang up my bits of duds. There's the kay of the room, love, and Molly O'Flaherty's blessings on all three of yez."
Mother Bunch turned, and thumped and bumped herself downstairs; and Bet, her eyes bright, and a spot of intense color on each of her cheeks, turned round to the boys.
"Look here," she said excitedly—"we're as safe here as if we was in London. Do you think father will come to Paradise Row? and do you think he'll face Mother Bunch? Yes, laddies, the room is small and close, and horrid and dirty; and I hate it, but I won't give way, and I won't cry. I've got soap in this bundle, and washing soda, and an old brush, and we'll clean it up—you two and me—and make it fit for mother's boys to live in."
The little fellows, who were really frightened, cheered up at these words. The dreadful attic, with its slanting roof and its tiny skylight window, was illuminated by brave, handsome Bet's presence, and by the comforting knowledge that the wretched man who called himself their father could give them no blows nor kicks here. A miserable neighbor in an opposite attic presently heard the three laughing as they worked.
Soap-and-Water can effect wonders, and by the evening Bet's attic looked like another place. She and the boys had worked with hearty good-will; three pairs of vigorous young arms had removed cobwebs, and scattered dirt, and let in a little fresh air. After all, there were worse rooms in this house than the upstairs unused attic, and the air which blew right down from the sky when Bet opened the tiny window was pure and sweet. The energetic girl had saved all her nightly earnings since her mother's death, and now she had three or four shillings in her pocket. Accompanied by the twins, who looked at her with adoring eyes, she went out presently, and purchased coals and food; and the three that evening, after the fire was lit and the kettle boiled, felt quite sociable and almost festive. Bet's heart was lighter than it had been since her mother's death; she did not despair of doing well for her brothers, and of bringing them up in such a way, and with such a due regard for religion, that by-and-bye they should meet their mother in the land where she now dwelt.
"Ef she's there—ef there is a future, she must have Nat and Thady with her," concluded Bet, as she watched the two small lads polishing off a hearty meal of bread and tea. "That's my part—to train 'em so as they'll choose religion and go to mother by-and-bye."
When the meal was over she called the boys to her. "Kneel down now, both of you, and say your prayers," she said. "Say 'Our Father 'chart heaven' and 'Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.'"
"Mother didn't teach us 'Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,'" said the captain.
"Well, love, say what she did teach; and be quick, for I must go out to buy and sell my papers."
The captain and the general knelt down obediently, closed their eyes, folded their hands, and went through the Lord's Prayer in high sing-song chanting voices. Then the general was silent—he opened his eyes and looked impatiently at his brother.
"That's all," he said.
"No, it ain't all," repeated Thady, "I'm a-try-ing to thing—don't keep nudging me, Nat—
'In the kingdom of Thy Grace Grant a little child a place.'
That's it, yes, that's it—and Nat, shut your eyes and say what I'm saying—' God bless Bet for ever and ever. Amen.'"
Nat joined in this last clause with hearty goodwill, and Bet felt a queer sensation coming into her throat. She kissed the little boys, locked the door upon them, and went out.
There were no girls in Paradise Row exactly like Bet. In the first place she was clean; in the next, she carried herself like a princess. She was so well made, and her head so beautifully set upon her shoulders, that it was impossible for her to be awkward. Her uncovered head with its wealth of hair shone with a kind of radiance when she passed under any lamp-post. Her lips were finely set, and she glanced scornfully and with a sort of touch-me-not air at any man or woman who happened to look at her with admiration. Her own defiant young steps and her own proud disdainful face were her best protection. Even in this rough Irish quarter no one molested her with an uncivil word. She felt quite hopeful to-night—the little boys' love and confidence cheered her. Thady's short prayer had touched the really great and deep heart which slumbered in her breast.
"I'd die for 'em, poor little chaps," she murmured; and she clenched her hand at the thought of any evil touching them. "Why, it's well I have 'em; there's no one else as cares for Bet Granger."
But then she thought of Will, and as she did so her heart quickened its steady, even pulse. Will wasn't the sort of lad that a girl could say "No" to without a sensation of pain. Bet thought of him as bonny. "He's good—yes, he's good," she murmured, and then she remembered the song of Barbara Allen, and she found herself humming the words which Will had sung in his strong, brave voice—
"When he was dead and laid in grave. Her heart was broke with sorrow."
"Folly!" said Bet, breaking off abruptly. "It ain't for me to think of no man; and I'm not Barbara Allen, and Will will get another girl to be a good mate for him some day. Poor Will—he's a bonny lad, all the same."
Bet had now reached the place where she purchased her papers. She made her usual careful selection—so many of the Star, so many of the Evening Echo, so many of the Herald. With them tucked under her arm, she soon reached her own special beat, and standing under the lamp- light, with her goods temptingly displayed, had even more than her usual luck. A dark-eyed, bold-looking girl presently came up and spoke to her.
"You seem to be doing a thriving business, Bet," she said, with a laugh.
"Same as usual" answered Bet. "This is about the best beat in Liverpool, and the gentlemen know me. I always give them their papers clean."
Just then a customer came up who wanted an Evening Echo. The Echo was a halfpenny paper. He gave Bet a penny, who returned him a halfpenny change. When this customer had departed the black-eyed girl burst into a fit of laughter.
"Well, you are a flat, Bet Granger," she said—"the greenest of the green. What can a gent like that want with a ha'penny? When I sells evening papers—and I've made a good thing of them round Lime Street—I never has no change; that's my way."
"Is it?" said Bet. "Well honesty's my way. I've nearly sold my papers now, Louisa, so I'll say 'good-night.'"
"Do tell me what you made first. I ha' a mind to have a new beat—what will you sell me yourn for?"
"Sell my beat?" said Bet—"my beat, what mother bought for me? Not quite."
She turned on her heel, and walked down the street. At the corner, to her great annoyance and vexation, she met her father. He was quite sober, and came up to her at once and put his hand through her arm. His small eyes looked keenly into her face. When he was sober he was more or less afraid of Bet.
"So you give me the slip, my gel!" he said. "But I'm a bit too cute for that sort of game. You'd better tell me where you ha' put those two little boys of mine. They're my boys, not yourn, you may as well understand. Where have you them hiding, Bet? I'll find out; so you may as well tell me."
"I don't mind telling you, father. They're with Mother Bunch in Paradise Row—she have the care of them now. And, listen, father—they're going to stay there. Ef you want the boys, you must get round Mother Bunch first."
Granger's face grew purple. For some reason, this piece of information was most disconcerting to him.
"You're a wicked, ungrateful gel," he said. "You don't honor your parents—you don't respect 'em as has been put over you by Providence. You're a bad 'un, you are, Bet Granger; and you'll come to no good end. Them boys are mine, not yourn; and, for that matter, you are mine too—you ain't of age, you know."
"No, I'm not of age," said Bet, in a quiet voice. "But the boys are with Mother Bunch, and they'll stay there. Ef you really tries to get 'em away I ha' quite made up my mind what to do."
"And what's that, if I may be so bold as to ask?" inquired Granger, in a taunting voice.
"Father, there's people here—yes, here, in this great bad Liverpool— who help children when they are treated cruel. If you try to get at the boys I'll take 'em to the Refuge, and I can tell the people there one or two things about you what won't sound too nice."
This last frank statement on Bet's part was even more disagreeable to Granger than her first piece of news. He saw that his daughter was stronger and had a better case than he could possibly have given her credit for. This discovery did not, strange to say, increase his anger. His manner became quiet, and almost deferential.
"Look you here, Bet—what's the good of argufying, and angering a fellow what's your own father? You wouldn't stay in Paradise Row but for me—now, would you, Bet? It ain't the place a likely girl like you would fancy—is it, Bet?"
"I'm going to stay there," said Bet; "it's no question of like or not like. Mother Bunch's, Paradise Row, is where I'm to be found, ef I'm wanted."
"But look you here, my lass—suppose I was to promise you faithful that I'd never touch the lads—that I'd leave them with you to bring up as you could—suppose I was to promise that most solemn, and mean it most faithful; and suppose I was even to go from Liverpool—quite far away, say to London or some such place—would you stay in Paradise Row then, Bet?"
Bet looked steadily at the man who walked with slouching gait at her side. From head to foot she viewed him. Then she said, in a sad, deep tone:
"You're not likely to make that promise, father. Ef you did—ef you made it faithful and true, and ef you went away from Liverpool—why then, then I would not stay in a place what I hates."
"I thought you were my lass, arter all," he said; "I thought as you was bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh, and that you couldn't stand what's real awful low slums—you, as has been brought up in Sparrow Street. Why, it ain't likely—you, the neatest lass in the town—you, as I'm proud to call my daughter! Look you here, Bet; I'll give up the boys. Maybe I ain't fit for the sacred dooties of father. Maybe I am a bit rough, and a bit strong in my temper. I'll give up the boys, and you shall have them, same as if they was your own. I'll go away to Lunnon, and you shan't be fretted by the sight of your poor old father never no more, ef you make me a promise, like the good lass you are. We all know what Bet Granger's promise is worth, and ef you make it you'll keep it, Bet."
"Yes, father; certain sure ef I make it I'll keep it. What do you want me to say?"
"Why now—look you here, Bet; you'll never say again as your poor old father ain't mindful of you. I ha' got a mate for you, Bet—as fine a seafaring lad as ever stepped—always sure of his berth, and earning lots of money—a fine, honest, brave jack-tar; and he'll put you in a little place of your own, and he'll do for you and the boys, and I'll go away to Lunnon. There, Bet—the day you marries him, your father'll take third-class fare to Lunnon."
"Who is he?" said Bet. Her eyes shone, and the color flushed into her cheeks. Had Will Scarlett dared to go to her father. "Who is he?" she repeated—"but oh! it was mean of him when I said as it couldn't be!"
Granger, who was watching her face, laughed loudly.
"Ho-ho, my pretty lass," he said, you look very bright about the face for a girl what didn't care for a man. You take my advice, Bet, and don't send away your sweetheart: no young maid should do that. There—I needn't tell you his name when you know it. Come back with me now to Sparrow Street, and you shall see him, and we'll settle it all up, day and all, afore the night is over."
"I can't, father."
Bet's face had now grown deadly white.
"Will shouldn't ha' done it, for I give him my answer, and he knows I'm not the girl to change. I can't do that either to help myself or the boys, father. But what do you mean?" she added, suddenly, as a queer look on Granger's face caused her to stop. She wheeled round and confronted her father.
"You can't be asking me to go home to meet Will Scarlett; for he's away, miles away by now in the 'Good Queen Anne.'"
Granger burst into a loud, coarse laugh.
"Will Scarlett!" he repeated—"Will Scarlett? So that's the way the wind blows, pretty lass? But I look higher than that strip of a good-for-nought feller for you. It's Isaac Dent, the best seaman in Liverpool, as would wed you, Bet, and make you the luckiest girl in the place."
Bet put her hand to her forehead.
"Isaac Dent?" she repeated. "He drinks, he's cruel; he ain't even honest. Isaac Dent! Father, you must be mad."
She turned on her heel, and flew down a dark court, which happened to be near.
Granger called after her, but she neither heeded nor heard him. Like most cruel men, he was a coward. He dared not follow her into the place where she was seeking shelter.
A few of the worst courts in Liverpool are absolutely without gaslight. It was into one of these now that Bet ventured. She leaned her back against the slimy, slippery, dirty wall, and breathed hard and fast. Her father could not see her nor find her there, and she was in a mood at that moment to fear no other living creature. Boys and men, girls and women, talked and swore and quarreled and jostled one another in the bad dark court. A lad of about twenty being pushed up against Bet, seized her familiarly by the arm; she flung him off like a young fury, and, wrapping her mother's plaid shawl which she wore about her shoulders over her head, ran out into the street. Her father was gone. Midnight was approaching, but the place was gayly lighted, for this was Saturday night, and the women, who could only get what was left of their husbands' earnings on their return from the public-houses, were eagerly buying and chaffering, and making what preparations they could for the coming Sabbath. No one molested or looked at Bet as she walked rapidly back to Paradise Row. She reached her destination about midnight, to find the whole house in what seemed to her the most awful state of uproar. Shouts and eager voices filled the air; loud laughter, screams of—"Hurrah! Well done! Do it again, Mother Bunch!" resounded on all sides. The door of Mother Bunch's apartment stood wide open; the small room was a blaze of gas and glowing from the heat of a great fire; and in the middle, with her arms a-kimbo, her head thrown back, and her bare feet twinkling merrily, stood Mother Bunch on a door, dancing, to the cheers of the audience, an Irish jig. As she danced, she sang; and it was to the tune of her merry voice and the movements of her rapidly-revolving feet that the crowd of spectators laughed and cheered.
"O, the shamrock, the shamrock, the green immortal shamrock—"
Mother Bunch sang these words with immense spirit, the Irish folks who looked on and applauded joining heartily and with vociferous cheers in the chorus. Bet had been dragged into the room, where she stood moodily, her shawl thrown off her head and lying in picturesque soft folds of color on her shoulders. Her handsome face attracted attention, and several people looked at her wonderingly; and one very rough looking man went up and addressed her.
Before Bet could reply, Mother Bunch had ceased dancing—had sprung off the dislodged door, which had been placed on the ground for her disposal.
"You leave this child alone, Dan Murphy; she isn't for the likes of you even to walk on the same side of the street with. Whoever says a word oncivil to this young girl shall have something to say also to Molly O'Flaherty. Now, out with yiz, neighbors all; the entertainment's over, and it's time for good folk to be in the land of dhrames. You stay ahint with me, Bet, darlint—I have a word for your private ear."
It was quite evident that in Paradise Row Mother Bunch's smallest command was law; in an incredibly short space of time the little room was cleared, and Mrs. O'Flaherty and Bet were alone.
"Now, look you here, my love," said the Irishwoman, "you make what use you can of this yere arum," and she stretched out a most powerful, sinewy member for Bet's edification. "This arum shall come atween you and trouble, Bet Granger. You ask anybody round what they know of Mother Bunch, and a mimber such as this. You have no call to be fretted, honey, with this atween you and mischief. So go up to bed now; and swate dhrames to you, and the blessing of Molly O'Flaherty."
There was something so hearty in the voice, and so kindly in the gleam of the Irishwoman's twinkling eyes, that Bet's overwrought heart was strangely stirred. She stooped down and kissed Mother Bunch on her forehead.
"I trust you," she said; "you're a safeguard to me and the little lads."
And then she went upstairs.
Meanwhile, Granger, being much too cowardly to follow his daughter into what was known as one of the dark courts of Liverpool, shuffled back in a discomforted and savage mood to his own superior place of residence in Sparrow Street. There he found Dent awaiting him. Splendid jack-tar as he was, no one could be more thoroughly disagreeable than Isaac Dent when things, as he expressed it, "went agin' him." He did not care for his long wait in Granger's dreary, fireless room; and he cared still less for the remark with which Granger announced his return.
"It's all no go, Dent, my man. I telled her what we said I'd tell her, and she went off in a mighty high tantrum. She's in Paradise Row with Mother Bunch—she and the lads; and I don't know how I'm to get them away from there. But," continued Granger, sinking into the first seat he could find, and stretching out his muddy boots, "you're about right on one point, old man—Will Scarlett's the lad of her choice, and not you. Why, she let it out as glib and innocent-like as gel could. Will Scarlett's the man, Dent; so you may put that in your pipe and smoke it."
Dent's ugly face grew a deep, dull red; his small eyes seemed to recede into his head, and grow deeper and more cunning. He did not speak at all for a moment or two, and when he did, the flush was succeeded by a more dangerous pallor.
"Look you yere, mate," he said—"you know a thing or two, and you has gone pals with me in a thing or two. It's nought to me who Bet cares about—she has got to be lawful wedded wife to me—or, or—you don't handle the coin,—you don't handle none of the coin, Granger. And you know a thing or two what would make it uncommon hot for you, if the wind was to blow in a certain quarter. You understand, and no words is needed. As to Will Scarlett, I checkmated him awhile back; so he don't trouble me. I'll say good-night, now, pal."
"Yes, but what's a fellow to do?" said Granger, in an extremely grumpy tone. "Bet's a strong lass, and a cute lass, and a cunning one; and she have got that Irishwoman Mother Bunch to back her up. I don't see what's to be done with a gel like Bet, if her will's fairly made up."
"I'd know what to do with her," grumbled Dent. He went as far as the door, then he turned suddenly—"Mother Bunch don't find her her bread-and-butter, I suppose?"
"No, no—Bet can do that for herself; she's a smart gel, and she have got the best newspaper beat in Liverpool"
"Oh, the best beat, have she? And she's your daughter—not of age yet —and she has carried the kids away from you—and she defies you, and laughs in your face? You couldn't think of a means of starving her out? Oh, no; not you! That good beat of hers—it were bought for her, weren't it?"
"Yes, years agone. Her Mother seed to that."
"Seems to me that as Bet's yourn her newspaper beat is yourn too. There's a tidy bit of money to be made out of such places once in a way; and there's such a thing as starving the wildest and sauciest lass in Liverpool into saying yea to your yea. A hint to the wise man is enough. I'll wish you good-night, mate. Only if I don't get the girl afore long, I takes the next berth that offers, and my money goes with me. Good-night to you, mate."
Dent went downstairs, and a moment after was making his way home to his lodgings. Bet had been perfectly right in speaking of this sailor as bad and cruel. Will was more than justified in any suspicions he might form against him. As Dent now walked through the streets his low type of face looked very bad indeed; the expression of cunning—that most unpleasant, that most diabolical of all expressions—was most apparent. It was past midnight now, and he cast sinister glances behind and around him. It would have been very unpleasant for him had certain people—Will Scarlett, for instance—the least idea he was still in Liverpool. Will, of course, supposed he was leagues away by now, snugly ensconced in that berth which he, Will, had been so loath to part with, on board the "Good Queen Anne." Will would indeed have opened his eyes had any one told him that Dent had never gone near the ship, and that the captain, after waiting and watching in vain for the bright young sailor whose name he had entered on his log, was obliged to choose another hand in a hurry, and knew nothing whatever of the able seaman whom Will now supposed was admirably filling his post.
For Dent had never the least intention of going away in the "Good Queen Anne." The one strongest desire of his life at present was to make handsome Bet Granger his wife; and he certainly did not wish to give Will a clear field in which he could woo and win her without danger or difficulty.
Dent had laid his own plans with care, and he was by no means depressed as to the possible result. When he reached his lodgings he lit a candle, and, first carefully locking the door, and looking round him with his most sinister glance, he lifted a loose board under his bed, and took from the recess beneath a sailor's checked pocket handkerchief. He opened it, and spread out on the table about twelve sovereigns in shining gold. "Six for me," he said, "and six for Granger, the day as Bet's mine. I ha' got a few shillings still, to hold out, and Bet must be mine by-and-bye. Six sovereigns to spend on our honeymoon, and then to find another berth in another ship. But Will has got the notes. I might have made a better bargain with Will. Ten pounds is a deal of money to give away. But never mind—never mind: I have checkmated Will Scarlett with them notes."
A few days before the present date of this story a fair-haired young lady, with gentle, beautiful brown eyes, who was known in many of the Liverpool slums as Sister Mary, was going home late. She was dressed as a Sister, and belonged to a religious institution; but she lived with her own father and mother, in one of the great suburbs of the city. She was indefatigable in visiting the poor and suffering, going to their houses at all hours without a particle of fear, and coming scathless and without even an insulting word from many rough scenes and from many low haunts.
On this particular night she had seen to the dying Mrs. Granger's comforts, had said a word or two to Bet on her exit from the house, and then walked rapidly down Sparrow Street to the first tramcar which went in the direction of her home. A girl of her acquaintance got in also at the same moment, and the two sat side by side talking on subjects of mutual interest. The car was full; and a rough-looking sailor, of the lowest type of face, was crushed up close to Sister Mary. She sat with her back partly to him, and discoursed with eagerness to her companion. The sailor knew many tricks of sleight-of-hand—he was, in short, a kind of Jack-of-all-trades, and the laudable profession of the professional pickpocket was by no means beneath his notice. He managed to help himself to Sister Mary's purse without her being at all aware of the fact. Her hands were clasped in her muff, which, though unprofessional, the cold night necessitated her wearing. She paid her tram fare with some loose change which she had slipped into her glove, and did not disturb the purse which she supposed to be lying snugly in an inside pocket.
Meanwhile Dent, for it was he, overheard some scraps of conversation of highly interesting nature.
Sister Mary Vallence had been at the bank that afternoon; she had been fortunate in getting to the Bank of England just before the hour of closing, and she described the race she had had, in an amusing manner, to her companion.
"Father would have been so put out if I had not brought him the money," she said. "He wanted it very particularly, for my brother Henry sails for America to-morrow."
"But are you not afraid of going down into these awful, awful slums with so much money in your pocket?" queried her girl friend.
"No, not really—no one would dream of supposing that I had close on 26 pounds in my inner pocket. As to the notes I always make a rule of taking the numbers. Well, good-night dear; I am glad I met you. By the way I saw that splendid-looking girl, Elizabeth Granger, again to-night I wish I could show her to you, Agnes. You would never rest until you had her for a model. Good-night,—I will get down here, conductor."
Dent also soon after left the tramcar; he had secured a richer prize than he had dared to hope for in any ordinary young lady's purse, and went on his way considerably elated,—only what a stupid, silly, almost wicked trick that was of people to take the numbers of bank-notes!
Miss Vallence went home, and very soon afterwards discovered her loss. It so happened that she had never noticed the sailor who sat next her, and consequently had not the smallest clue as to the time or the place where the purse was stolen. She had, indeed, never opened it since she had put the money given to her at the Bank of England into it, having enough small change for her immediate needs in the bag which she usually carried about with her. The purse had been stolen; but how, when, and where, were mysteries which no one seemed able to clear up.
The numbers of the missing notes were sent to the Bank, and a reward offered for the purse should anyone be honest enough to return it. The affair was also put into the hands of the police; but, as Sister Mary could give so little information, they told her that her chance of recovering the money was but slight. The only hope lay in the presentation of the 5 pound notes at the Bank of England; but even if they could trace the thing through this means, he was not very likely to change the notes at present. Sister Mary's brother had to go to sea without the money which would have considerably added to his comfort, and a bad man plotted and schemed to do much mischief through his ill-gotten wealth.
Bet was terribly startled when her father calmly and coolly proposed such a mate for her as Isaac Dent. During the first night she spent in Mother Bunch's attic, she lay awake and tossed wearily from side to side, trying to forget the evil face of the man who would if he could make her life, she knew, a hell on earth. She was glad of Mother Bunch's protection, and wondered if it would be possible for her and the boys to leave Liverpool altogether. But Bet, like most girls of her class, had an intense and almost passionate regard for her native place. The big town, with its wharves and quays and docks represented her world. She was at home in it; she knew both its byways and highways. To live away from the big ships and the rolling splendid river and the taste of the sea which was wafted to her sometimes on the strong fresh breeze, would have been death in life to the Liverpool girl. No; she would rather undergo any hardships in her native place than seek the troubles she knew not of elsewhere.
She reflected with satisfaction that her arm was strong as well as Mother Bunch's—that in her own young strength she could defy most dangers, and that these were not the times when girls could be forced to marry against their will.
Towards morning she fell into a heavy sleep, and awoke to find the boys both dressed after a fashion, and regarding her with round eyes of approval and satisfaction.
"I won my bet," shouted Thady, when his sister slowly opened her eyes. He began to turn somersaults in the wheel-like fashion which had drawn him sundry halfpence in the streets. "I won my bet," he repeated gleefully. "You'll have to give me the spotted marble, Nat."
Nat produced his treasure very unwillingly, and told Bet upbraidingly that if she had slept one moment longer, so as to allow St. Jude's clock to strike nine, he might have retained his treasure.
"And you looked real beautiful with the fringes round your eyes as thick as thick," continued Thady, in an affectionate tone. "I'd have lost my bet jest to look on yer," he added.
"You musn't make bets about things, boys," admonished their sister. "Mother never held by betting, and you know, how I promised her that I would bring you two up. Now we'll light the fire and have a bit of breakfast, and then I'll take you to church. All good people go to church, I've heerd say."
"Oh, lor!" whispered Thady to Nat. "Arn't we going to turn out real pious!"
Nat was absorbed in the contemplation of his new boots, which he was now fastening on, and did not reply to his brother. Bet, however, shook her head; and the little captain, being oppressed by a sudden sense of perplexity over this new state of things, stood in a contemplative attitude under the skylight, looking up at the glimpse of blue sky and whistling.
The day passed in a somewhat dreary fashion. Bet took her boys to the nearest place of worship she could find—pushing them, in their decidedly ragged apparel, inside the church door, but remaining in the porch herself.
"You had better come in," whispered the verger.
"No, no; it's for them—get them the best places you can," she said in reply.
And then she stood moodily just inside the porch, looking over the town, and clasping her hands with an excess of excited feeling now and then when the peal of the organ sounded on her ears. It was all beautiful and warm within, but she was outside. Was she to be outside everything all her life?
It is a fact much to be regretted, but both the general and the captain behaved so very badly inside the church, using their newly-shod feet with such vigor in kicking the boys next them, rolling their tongues into their cheeks, distorting their features, and finally exchanging marbles with their neighbors on each side of them, that the verger took them out before the sermon was over, and told Bet that unless she chose to accompany her brothers to church and sit with them during the service, they could not go at all.
"It's no go, Bet," said the captain; "we ain't the sort as you can make good 'uns of. Me and the general don't mind saying our prayers to you, Bet, and not turning head-over-heels in the street, and not betting of no bets, and we don't mind hiding if you tell us to hide, and we don't mind being locked up in the attic, 'cause it ain't 'ard to get on to the roof from the attic, and we can shy things at the cats from there:—but we can't set still in church—can we, General? No, never no more."
The General most heartily reciprocated these sentiments, and Bet perceived that it would not be wise to lay down the laws of supposed goodness too strictly in the case of two such adventurous spirits as animated the breasts of her small brothers. She took them for a walk in the afternoon, and it must be owned that the long day was dreary to all three, and that all felt oppressed with an unnatural sense of restraint. Nat, indeed, confided to his brother, as they lay side by side in bed that night, that he was afeard ef there was much more of that keeping in of a fellow he would have to go back to pie-crust promises, and do again what was pleasing in his own eyes.
Monday morning, however, restored a far less strained order of things. Bet was busy washing and mending, and doing all she could to put this new semblance of a home into order. The boys, delighted at not having to go to school as usual, whistled and cheered, and helped her to the best of their ability. In the afternoon she read them a very exciting story of adventure, which she had picked up in a penny paper, and again the little fellows assured her that there was no one in all the world like her, and that they would not hurt her, nor bring tears to her eyes, nor cause her heart to ache for all the world,—in short, that they would even be good for her sake.
"I'll find another school for you," said Bet, "what father won't know nothing of, and you shall go reg'lar from next Monday out. And now good-night, boys; I'll take the key of the door with me. See, I must have a good sale of papers to-night; for arter I have bought my store I'll only have tuppence left in my pocket."
Bet generally bought her papers at a tiny shop not far from her old home. She got them at wholesale price, and was well known to the woman who kept the shop. This person regarded Bet as one of her most constant customers, and now and then added a paper or two of the half-penny order to her bundle for nothing, and by way of good luck. On this night she informed her young customer that she had no copies of the Evening Star left.
"There's a run on it," she said. "There's news from the Soudan— something about General Gordon. Anyhow, it's sold out; so you had better take some more of the News."
Bet was vexed, for the Evening Star was the most popular of all her papers.
"I'm late to-night, and that's a fact," she said. "But you might ha' kept some of them for me."
"So I would, dear, but I thought you were leaving the newspaper business. A girl came in and said so, and she bought up all that were left of the Evening Star."
Bet was preparing to reply angrily to this when two or three ladies came into the shop who had to be attended to.
"I'd like to meet that girl," she said to herself as she walked rapidly to her destination. "What lies some folks do tell, to be sure!"
She was, as she said, late; and now as she walked along she opened her papers and sorted them, hoping that she had not lost many customers, and resolving that in future Nat and Thady should not hinder her from being in good time at her post. She was somewhat breathless when she reached it, and as she stood in the full blaze of the gaslight in her favorite position, her eyes were shining, and a rich color mantled in her cheeks. She looked positively lovely, and several people turned and stared at her. Her face was of a refined and even noble cast; and the incongruity of the uncovered head and the poor and tattered clothing only made her beauty the more striking. "Ha, ha!" laughed a coarse voice in her ear.
She turned quickly,—the dark, rough-looking girl who had accosted her on Saturday night was also standing in the blaze of gaslight; she also carried papers in her hands, and Bet saw that she held uppermost a great pile of the favorite Evening Star.
"Ha, ha!" she said, beginning to dance round her companion—"handsome Bet Granger! Lovely Bet Granger! But rosy cheeks won't do it, nor eyes that sparkle, nor lips that smile ever so sweet, when the beat's mine! mine! mine! Want an Evening Star, sir? Great news of Gordon in the Soudan! Great news from the Soudan! Soudan! Evening Star! Latest particulars! Fifth edition! Only a halfpenny, sir! Want an Evening Star, sir?"
"I think this is the girl who always serves me," said the gentleman now addressed.
He turned to Bet, and asked her for a copy of the paper.
"I have only got the Evening News," she replied, in a dull, lifeless voice.
"Then I will take that," he said kindly.
He paid Bet the halfpenny, and went into his club.
"You had no right to do that, my pretty dear," said the dark girl. "I paid fifteen shillin' for your beat only this morning. I said as I were willing to buy, and your father he come and axed me, and I give him the money. What's the matter, Bet? You needn't look like that. Fair play's fair play, and the beat's mine now—I paid for it. You ain't of age," she added with a taunting laugh, "and your father had a right to sell, and the beat's mine now."
"Maybe you are telling me a lie," said Bet, still in that queer dull voice. "Some people don't mind telling lies, and you're one of them. I intend to go on selling papers here until you can prove as the beat's yourn." "Bless your heart, I can do that now—here. I suppose you know your own father's writing? See, there's light enough under the gas for you to read. There—see for yourself what he have said."
The black-eyed girl held up a dirty piece of paper for Bet's inspection. Like a flash she took in the meaning of the few words scribbled on it.
"This is to certify that I has sold the newspaper beat of my daughter, Elizabeth Granger, to Louisa Marks for the sum of fifteen shillings.—JAMES GRANGER."
"It's all right," said Louisa, as Bet handed her back the paper. "You haven't a word to say again it, have you?"
"No," said Bet, raising her voice a very little—"not to you. I haven't a word to say to you though you have stabbed me in the dark. I could fight you, but I won't; for you're of the cowardly sort that think nothing of lies, and creeping into a thing by the back door. You ain't worth fighting. I wouldn't have it said I touched your sort. Keep the beat that wasn't my father's to sell, nor yours to buy. Keep it; make what you can of it. Good-night."
The sparkle had not left her eyes, and the flush of exercise had given place to the flush of burning rage on her cheeks. She felt that she could have done that dark, malicious, talking girl an injury—only she wasn't worth it; she would pour the full vials of her wrath on other heads.
She walked away rapidly, not caring in the least where she wandered. At that moment it was nothing at all to her that she was ruined—that her means of livelihood had been snatched from her—that she had a bundle of unsold papers under her arm, and only twopence in her pocket,—that two little boys would be hungry to-morrow for the bread which she could not give them. All the pain of these things would come later to her; but just now she only felt her swelling, raging anger, and her burning thirst to revenge herself on the cruel man who called himself her father.
As a matter of course, she wandered into the slums and low places of the town—she eschewed the lighted thoroughfares, and walked along the darker streets. Her beauty was so remarkable to-night, that even here she was observed and commented upon; and with an instinctive, almost unconscious movement—for her passion absorbed her so much that she did not see the gaze of the passers-by—she raised her mother's worn, many-colored plaid shawl over her head, and partly hid her flushed, dazzling face in its folds.
Suddenly, in the midst of her rapid, headlong walk, she drew up short, pressing her hand to her heart, her lips parted, her eyes distended to their widest. She was listening to a sound, and that sound was saving her. The full, rich, delicious notes of a woman's voice were floating out through one of the dark courts to Bet's ears—the notes warbled like a bird's, they rose and fell like the clear cool sound of a fountain. Bet's great eyes grew soft—she knew the voice, and the music drew her as certainly as a troubled child will fly to its mother. She went straight into the court, and joined the group of listeners who were hanging on to Hester Wright's melodious utterances.
This special court was not lit by any gaslight, but a man had brought a rude, ill-contrived lantern, and by its dim, flickering rays the slight form and thin earnest face of the singer could be fitfully seen. A great crowd had gathered round her, but she herself was raised above the people by standing on a chair which one of the neighbors had fetched. By her side stood Will Scarlett. He joined her in the choruses, his voice answering note by note to hers; his face, too, was seen in the dim light, and Bet gave a start when she recognized it, and crept herself a little farther into the shade.
The wretched little court was almost full of people, fresh numbers coming in, moment by moment, as the beauty of the voice attracted them. These people belonged to the lowest refuse of Liverpool life; but they were all quiet, subdued, orderly—tamed, in short, for the time, by the magical gift which Hester possessed.
As a rule she chose grave music—it suited the depth and quality of her voice; but very rarely would she favor her audience with rollicking sea-songs, or anything with a comic element. Her taste, as regarded music, was absolutely pure and good, and she had a wonderful faculty for picking up both words and music of the nobler sort.
When Bet entered the court Hester and Will were singing "Kathleen Mavourneen." The fine range of Hester's voice enabled her to do this somewhat difficult melody full justice. Will helped her with a note or two now and then, for his own taste in music was nearly as good as hers, and he knew exactly when and how to aid without spoiling the effect. As each song was finished the people cheered, but not noisily; the cry was generally, "Give us more—give us another, Hester Wright!"
"Yes, I will give you another," said Hester, when "Kathleen Mavourneen" had come to an end. "I will give you something very beautiful now. I don't think you know it—it will touch you."
Her voice rose again into the air—
"I had a message to send her, To her whom my soul loved best; But I had my task to finish, And she had gone home to rest."
All through the difficult evolutions of the melody Hester's voice rose and fell; she rendered no note of the music wrong; her unerring instinct and her real genius carrying her through the most complicated and pathetic music she had ever attempted. The breathless silence grew denser, the people pressed closer, and Bet, forgetting everything in the ecstasy of listening, found herself almost pushed to the front:—
"And at last I know that my message Has passed through the golden gate, And my heart is no longer restless, And I am content to wait."
"That is beautiful," said the singer. "Yes, those words stir my heart —there's nought like music—no, there's nought like music in all the world. Now, I'll give you one more good thing—perhaps a better thing than that—afore I go home. I heard it sung to the organ, and it come from the inside of a church. I don't hold by no church, but this thing has fastened on my heart, and I'll give it to you, neighbors."
Hester stooped down and said a word or two to Will Scarlett.
"Help me with the words, cousin—sing 'em out full, and as if somehow you held on to them."
Will nodded, and the two voices, in perfect harmony, once more filled the court.
"Oh, rest in the Lord. Wait patiently—patiently-for Him; and He shall give thee thy heart's—thy heart's desire."
As the last notes fell upon the listening people they might have noticed, had they not been so absorbed in watching Hester, that the man's deep voice shook and swayed a little. The fact was this: the flickering rays of the lantern had shown him the ruddy glow of a certain stately head, and for an instant a face shone out, and was lost again in the thick darkness. When the last notes died away Bet turned, and, pressing through the crowd, left the court; but the unerring instinct of love made Will Scarlett hear her departing footsteps over and above all the others. He said two hasty words to Hester, and followed her.
"Bet," said Will, when they got outside; "Bet, I'm here. What is it? You're in trouble. I can tell by the way you turn your head away as you're in sore trouble. Why, there—you're sobbing. Don't, don't. It hurts me sore to see you thus."
"It were the music," said Bet. "Hester allays moves me, and there were words as brought mother back. I didn't hold to mother so much when she were living—I weren't never too good to her; but now it seem to me as if I fair hungered for her, and I'd like well to send her a message—many messages. Then, there were them last words. Why, Will, any one 'ud suppose that Hester were of mother's thinking. I never could have guessed it."
"Maybe she is, and maybe she isn't" said Will. "Seems to me the words is true, whoever holds on to 'em."
They were walking rapidly, and now Bet felt a sweet and yet rough breeze on her cheeks. They were down by the Mersey, and the salt taste from the sea was blown into her hot eyes and burning cheeks.
"That's good," she said, flinging back her shawl, and sighing, as if a great burden had been lifted from her. The moon was up, and its white light lay on the rippling water, and just touched the outline of Bet's face.
"That's good," she repeated, as she took another draught of the sweet, pure, invigorating air. She had again that pre-occupied look which seemed only half-conscious of her companion.
"Let's walk along by the quays," said Will. "Higher up it will blow real fresh; this is nought—only the shadow of the sort of thing that comes to you when you are fairly out on the waves."
"Will," said Bet, suddenly, as she turned and looked full at him, "I were fair wrapt up in myself, and it never come to me till this minute to ask how you are here. Why, it's nigh upon a week since you were to have been away in that ship that carried Hope at its bows, you mind."
"That's true," said Will, rather shortly. "But I had a wish to stay on shore a bit longer, so I sold my berth to Isaac Dent. He says he knows you, Bet—but he oughtn't to—he ain't fit for you to speak to."
"He's one of father's mates," said Bet. "And he's not at sea, Will; he's on shore. Father wanted me to come home on Saturday night last to see him, and to—to—oh, don't ask me—what father says has burnt into my heart, I'm wild to-night, Will. I'm wild, and tossed with misery, and that's the truth. Let me go home, Will Scarlett—that is, to what home I have. Don't, don't be clutching hold of my hand. I ain't fit to talk to a good lad like you to-night"
"Yes, you are, Bet," said Will. "You're more fit to talk to me than to any other lad—or lass, for that matter—in the whole o' Liverpool; for I'm your true love, Bet, and you are mine. There—you can't go for to deny it."
Will's figure no longer looked so slight and boyish; he held himself up very erect, and the breeze tossed back his thick dark curly hair, and the moonlight shone into his honest blue eyes, as they looked straight at the trembling, troubled, excited girl.
"You know as I'm your true love; and I'll wed you, come what may," said Will Scarlett. "There—I stayed away from the bonny waves on purpose. Look at me, Bet, I'm the lad as has given his whole heart to you."
"I'm in sore trouble," sobbed Bet. "Will, Will, don't tempt me. I'm in the sorest trouble, and I'm being treated bitter cruel, and you—I know as you're honest—and I know as you—you could love a girl, and she might—might lean on you, Will. But don't tempt me, for I oughtn't to listen to such words as you ha' spoke. For I ha' made a promise as I'll never be wife to no man."
"You made a bad promise, then," said Will. "Who did you make it to? Ef it were to yourself, I don't see as you need hold to it, ef your mind's changed. And ef you made it to God, somehow I don't think He liked it, nor thought it a good word to pass your lips—for He have made you and me for each other, Bet; and I fancy as it don't please Him to have the plans as He has made crossed by the weak promise of a girl. You had better unmake that vow of yours, Bet; for it don't hold water nohow."
Will had now put his arm round Bet's waist, and his eager masterful face was close to hers. She felt a new timidity, and a new trembling, wonderful joy stealing over her, and chasing away the dark cloud of her grief.
"I never thought as we was made for one another," she said, in a timid undertone.
"Then you knowed very little, Bet, ef you didn't find that out. Away on the sea, haven't I dreamt of you, and seen your face near mine, when the waves was rough, and we thought we'd be in Davy Jones' locker by the morning? And sometimes, Bet, when I'd be tempted to do as other fellows, and take to bad ways, your face 'ud come before me, and somehow I couldn't. I always knew when I was out on the waves that you was to be my lawful wedded wife one day. You can't go agin a thing like that, my dear. Why, when you come to think of it, it seems downright wrong even to name a promise you made only to yourself when you knowed no better."
"But Will—Will—mother was wed, and she suffered—oh, she did suffer bitter—and it were then I vowed as no man should call me mate."
Will's face grew dark.
"And you was right," he said. "You was mor'n right—when you thought of sich as your father, and sich as Dent. Why, Bet, sich fellers as them ain't men at all—they ain't worthy of the name. I don't want to say much, Bet; but I ain't of their sort—I could be tender to you, my dear, and true, true as steel; and your father couldn't touch you when you was my lawful wife, darling. And you should have the little lads, and keep the promises you made to your mother. See, Bet, the moon's shining on us, and there's a beautiful salt taste of the sea on our lips, and there's all the love that I can give you shining out of my eyes this yer minute. You make me a promise, Bet, dear—one that will undo that base one you once vowed to yourself. Forget that promise—what were cruel and wicked, and a shame, when it came atween you and me. Here, make another now, Bet—one of your own as never got broke."
"What shall I say, Will? I'm troubled sore, and yet I'm comforted beyond words to say; and you ha' done it! Will, dear Will. What promise shall I make as'll be true and binding on me forever?"
"Say this, Bet: 'I give myself to you, Will Scarlett, and I'll be your wedded wife as soon as ever parson can be found to tie us together. So help me, God Almighty.'"
Bet said the words without faltering, and as she did so a curious and wonderful thing happened to her—when she found her love, and believed in him, and gave herself up to him utterly, she also ceased to doubt that there was a God. He was there—He was good; He was blessing her. She had only twopence in her pocket, and her worldly career seemed a short hour ago utterly destroyed and done for; but now no girl in Liverpool could feel richer than she did.
With people in Bet Granger's class the time between the wooing and the wedding is seldom long. Will would not go to sea until Bet was his wife, and so it was decided by the two that they would go to church as soon as ever the parson could be found who would be willing, as they expressed it, to tie the knot between them. Certain preliminaries had to be gone through, of which they were profoundly ignorant; and Will discovered, when he made inquiries, that a short delay was, after all, inevitable.
In some way, girls in Bet's class look upon marriage more solemnly than those who are born in higher grades. To them the marriage itself is all in all,—they have neither time nor money to give to dress and presents, and wedding paraphernalia. Bet would go to Will Scarlett in her poor, neatly-mended gown and when she gave herself to him she would bring him nothing else,-no outward adornings, no household furniture—nothing but just her steadfast spirit, her heart filled to overflowing with the greatest love she had ever known, and her great beauty. Will and Bet would have to live from hand to mouth, and would be still quite regarded as the poorest of the people; but love on such an occasion as this is very apt to laugh at poverty, and these two during the few days that followed were perhaps the happiest pair in the great city.
As was to be expected, Bet had confided to Will and to Hester the whole story of Dent's proposal, and of her father having sold away her beat, and so deprived her of the means of earning bread for herself and her little brothers. Will and Hester between them had provided her with a little money for present necessaries, and Will told her that on the day they were married he meant to buy another newspaper beat for her.
"When I'm at sea you must be earning something, Bet," he said; "and though every girl can't hold her own and be good and respectable as you are, yet there ain't no fear for one like you, and you may as well go on selling newspapers to the gentlemen, and show them what a Liverpool lass can be when she likes."
"But the best beat is gone," said Bet, mournfully—"there ain't another to be had for love or money like that what mother bought for me round by the clubs."
Will's disposition was very sanguine.
"We'll find a beat nearly as good," he said in a confident voice. "There's a great club being built at the far end of Castle Street, and there'll be a lot of gas and light about, and the gentlemen will want their papers. I can buy a boat for you there for ten shillings, Bet, and you can earn a tidy penny. What with that, and what I can send you from sea, you and the lads won't fare so bad."
Bet smiled at these words, and was somewhat comforted—she had no idea of being a burden on the man who was to be her mate, and in particular was determined to support Nat and Thady entirely by her own exertions.
After a great deal of consultation, it was decided that during Will's first voyage after their wedding Bet was to remain in Paradise Row with Mother Bunch. This worthy Irishwoman took an enormous fancy to Will, clapping him on the back, cheering him on with his wooing, and assuring him that that "purty darling blossom of a wife of his" should be her first care, day and night, all the time the waves were washing under him; "and not a hair of her head should be hurt," said Mother Bunch—"and them mischeevous little varmints of hers shall come to no harm, naythur,—oh, will ye then, ye rogues! Why then 'tis you that bates the heart out of Molly O'Flaherty entirely."
With that she gave chase to the captain and general, who were dodging round the corner, and making anything but polite faces at her.
It is a very trite proverb, and a sadly worn truth, exemplified over and over again at all times and seasons, and in all places of the earth, that the course of true love never ran smooth; and alas! notwithstanding all the pleasant preparations being made for them, these two poor lovers were no exception to the rule.
Bet and Will both had enemies, and these enemies were neither inactive nor inclined to forbear from mischief.
On the very day after her engagement Bet came across her father—she came upon him suddenly, and as if by accident; but in truth he had been looking out for her, as he was intensely curious to know how the starving process suggested by Dent was answering, and how soon, in consequence, he might hope to receive Dent's promised gold. No one knew better than Granger the depressing effects of starvation; he had gone through them himself, and was therefore an excellent judge. He expected to see Bet with her hair untidy, her eyes red and dull, and her face heavy,—he expected to be greeted with a torrent of withering anger and sarcasm, or to be assailed by a burst of violent woman's tears and reproaches. Instead of this state of things he saw coming to meet him a trim lass, dressed with remarkable neatness—her hair in a great shining coronet on her head, her eyes bright and yet soft, and a happy smile playing about her lips. Her face changed when she saw him, but it did not get angry, only a little pale, and the eyes took an expression of sadness.
"It weren't worth your while father?' she said. It were a mean, mean trick to play. It were a stab in the dark, father, and it took my breath away for a time, and I were mad with ye. Yes, Father—I was 'most quite mad in earnest; and ef I had met you last night, maybe I'd ha' done you an injury. I can't rightly say, only that I know that my brain was going round, and I was fairly choking with rage—it was as if you had put a devil into me, father."
"That's a nice way to speak to your own father, what give you your being," said Granger, in a puzzled, would-be indignant voice, for he could not understand Bet's speaking of all her trouble and rage in the past tense. "What's come to you, lass?" he continued. You was in a rage—ain't you in a rage still?—the beat's gone for aye and aye, you knows."
"No, I ain't in a rage now," said Bet. "It's over—seems as if there was a spring day in my heart, and I ha' no room to be in a rage. You meant it for bitter bad, father, but maybe 'twas God. I do think as it must have been Him—He meant it all contrariwise, and just because you sold my beat, as I were burning and mad with rage—I—I—never mind that part—only I'm the happiest lass in the whole of Liverpool to-day."
"You air," said Granger with a great oath. "It's like your impidence to defy me more and more. What do you mean by words such as them, you bad disobedient girl? Don't you know as there's a curse on them as don't obey their parents?"
"No, father; there's no curse on a girl who won't go your way; and though it ain't nothing to you, and I ain't nothing to you, yet I may as well tell you that I give myself to Will Scarlett last night, and I'm going to be his lawful wedded wife as soon as ever the law can tie us up."
With that Bet turned on her heel, and walked rapidly away. She had said her say, and did not want to listen to any of Granger's ill-timed comments.
Her quick steps soon took her out of the man's sight; he ground his teeth, and, choking with rage, went to find Dent.
"I could prevent it," he said, as he concluded his story. "The gel's not of age, so I could put my spoke in, and make it rare and troublesome for her. I will, too, ef you'll only put me up to the straight tip, Dent."
To Granger's surprise, Dent took all this information with wonderful equanimity.
"I wouldn't try that on," he said. "Scarlett's of age, if the gel ain't, and you'd have to make a deal of statements, and maybe more 'ud come out than you'd like, and you mightn't gain your point in the end, for there's lots of ways of being married, and once the knot was tied you couldn't do nothing."
"You takes it mighty cool for one who wants the gel yourself," said Granger, who felt ready to dance with vexation.
"Bless yer 'art," said Dent, "you don't suppose as I mean to give her up? Not a bit of it. You keep yourself cool, old man; we'll divide the money, and I'll have my pretty bride yet. Why, Granger, you can never see beyond the stone wall you're gazing at; you haven't, so to speak, no perception at all. Now this don't surprise me, and I'll tell you why. I knew that Will wanted the gel—ay, and haven't I played him a trick on that very account?—and anyone could see with half an eye that she wanted him; and what more like than that they should make it up atween them. Yes, but wooing ain't wedding, and there's many a slip—oh, yes, many and many. Don't you fret, Granger—didn't I tell you as I had checkmated that low fellow, Scarlett? You won't never be demeaned by that marriage, my man."
With these words Dent left his companion; he had managed to comfort him a good deal, and he was certainly by no means depressed himself.
"Nothing could please me better," he muttered. "The thing's moving at last. Yes, my pretty Bet—you'll know what to think of that fine lover of yourn by-and-bye; you'll say to yourself then that there are worse men in the world than honest Isaac Dent."
Here Dent laughed immoderately—the idea of taking up the role of an honest man seemed to tickle his humor to a remarkable extent.
"I mustn't leave a stone unturned, all the same," he continued; and after meditating deeply for a moment he strode rapidly away in the direction of the Eastern Docks. Here he entered a small shop, whose owner specially laid himself out to supply all kinds of heterogeneous things to sailors. There was scarcely anything that a sailor could possibly require which Higgins, the owner of this small shop, could not furnish him with. From wedding-rings to second-hand slop clothes he was up to all emergencies. There was no other shop exactly like Higgins' near this particular part of the docks; and because he was obliging in the matter of credit, and had a very jovial, free-and-easy manner, he was immensely popular with all the sailors who came that way, and in consequence did a roaring trade. Dent knew Higgins well, and was perfectly aware that his virtue was not above contamination. Higgins had, in short, such a keen eye for profit that he thought very little of stepping over the boundary line of strict honesty to obtain it. When Dent entered the shop it was, as usual, full of customers, but presently these cleared off, and Dent and the owner could indulge in a little confidential talk. They spoke in low tones, and Higgins' assistant, strain his ears as he might, could not overhear a word of their conversation. Several customers came in from time to time and interrupted them; nevertheless, when Dent went away he felt abundantly satisfied that he was laying his little trap with consummate care. Did Higgins know a sailor of the name of Scarlett? Of course—did a lot of business with him; as honest a fellow as ever breathed. Honest—oh! Dent raised his eyebrows, and contrived by various innuendoes to convey a contrary impression to the astute Higgins. They talked a little longer. Suddenly Dent became intensely confidential.
"Look here, Higgins," he said, "a word to the wise is enough"—here he pressed that worthy's palm with the hard, delicious pressure which an accompanying crown-piece can bestow—"look here, Higgins, if Scarlett brings you any Bank of England notes to change, be sure you get him to put his full name and address on them." Emphatic head-shakes, profound winks, unutterable contortions, accompanied this piece of sound advice; and Dent left the shop, having conveyed the impression which he meant to convey—that Scarlett had stolen some Bank of England notes, and that Dent for a private motive of his own, which it did not behove Higgins to inquire into, wanted to get him into trouble about them.
Will Scarlett's wedding-day had very nearly come. This was Tuesday, and on the following Thursday he and Bet were to go to church together, and to be made man and wife. On the following Monday honest Will was to sail away on a long cruise to China, and his young wife might possibly not see him again for a couple of years.
Never mind that; they were both young and buoyant with hope just now— in short, Will felt his love so strong that he was sure it could bridge the whole distance from China to that dread attic in Paradise Row, and surround Bet's heart and life with a halo which would make all things endurable to her; and Bet's love was also so strong—for it was a way of hers when she gave her heart to give it absolutely—that she too was certain that the golden chain of affection would reach from Paradise Row to China, and that, though outwardly divided, she and her brave sailor-mate would in reality still be together.
"You look out for the moon, Bet," Will had said to her. "The bonny moon will be shining on you and on me jest at the same minute; and the stars too, for that matter. Why, when one comes to think of it, we'll have a crowd of things in common still, sweetheart, although we has got to say good bye for a time."
In short, these young folks were in paradise just now. They were as poor as poor could be, and not an individual who heard of their relations to each other would have envied them; but love, which very often fails to appear on the threshold of what the world considers a great match, was shedding quite a golden glory over these two at the present moment. In reality, therefore, Will and Bet were not poor.
They were to part on Monday, but between that parting and the present moment would come the short church ceremony, and the little honeymoon, which they had arranged to spend at Birkenhead. Mother Bunch was to take care of the boys during Bet's absence, and the girl's own small preparations were nearly made.
On Tuesday she sat down in her attic and thought how a few short days had worked a complete revolution in her life. She was excited and hopeful and happy, and nothing was further from her mind at that moment than a certain dreadful old proverb which declares that there is many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip. The boys were playing in the back court behind the house, and Bet, having tidied up her very humble apartment, until, literally, there was not a pin in the wrong place, had risen to go downstairs, when she heard a lumbering, rolling, and very heavy step ascending. There was no mistaking who was coming to pay her a visit—no one but Mother Bunch could so bang herself against the sides of the slimy wails, or cause the frail balustrade to creak and groan, as she lurched in turn against it; no one but Mother Bunch could so puff and pant and groan, and finally launch herself into Bet's attic like a dead weight, and sit down on the pallet bed, spreading out her broad hands on her knees, and puffing more than ever.
"Oh, glory! them stairs'll be the death of me. Give me a drop of water, for the love of heaven, Bet, my dear. Oh, then, 'tis me as is the good frind to you; but 'tis black mischief as they're brewing agin' you, honey, and no mistake."
Here Mother Bunch recovered her breath, and Having taken a sip or two of the water which Bet gave her in a cracked teacup, began to pour out her tale.
"Come close to me, honey," she said, "for it's thrue as walls has ears, and when them as means mischief is abroad you're never safe, come what may. But we'll spite them, see if we don't—we'll be even with them—you and me, and the sailor boy. Oh, ochone, ochone!—but it's, a black world entirely!"
"What have you heard, Mrs. O'Flaherty?" asked Bet. She was trembling now, for Mother Bunch's evident perturbation had infected her. "Tell me the whole story, Mrs. O'Flaherty—you bring my heart into my mouth when you look at me like that, and don't tell me what the real matter is."
"Treachery's the matter, darlint—and a mane, cowardly trick to ruin an honest man, and to give the handsomest girl in Liverpool to a villain. Oh, no—I don't know none too much, only a word dropped here and a word there—and Mother Bunch being what we call in ould Ireland mighty cute, and able to put two and two together. There's a trick to prevent you and Will being wed, Bet; and it's atween your father and that low sailor feller he was talking to—and I heard it in the 'Star and Garter' whin I went there for sixpennu'th of beer just now. They never set eyes on me, becase I'm frinds with the man at the bar, ye knows, and I just dropped down on a bit of a three-legged stool near him, and wan't seen at all, at all. Thin I heard them a contriving and making up their bits of plans, and something was to happen on Thursday as 'ud take our breath away, and the sailor would have his own way; and Will-oh, I couldn't catch what was to be done with Will; but for certain sure he wasn't to be no mate of yourn; and-and-the long and short of it is, honey, that there's black treachery to the fore."
"Let me go," said Bet.
She had been kneeling by Mother Bunch, and drinking in every word. Now she stood up, and taking her mother's plaid shawl, wrapped it round her head and shoulders.
"I'm going out," she said; "see to the boys, Mrs. O'Flaherty. I'll be back, maybe, by-and-bye. Maybe I won't."
"I thought you'd take things in the right spirit, dear," responded Mother Bunch, who showed no particular curiosity to learn Bet's present purpose.
Having delivered her soul, she felt no further anxiety with regard to the matter. Bet was a strong lass, who, when apprised of her danger, could fight her own battles. With the remark that "she would see to the little varmints," and not expect Bet back until she chose to come, she rolled herself downstairs; and Bet followed her quickly, and soon reached the street.
She walked fast; her heart was beating, and her head was in a whirl. All her latent fear and distrust of her father had risen in full force. As to Dent-for, of course, the sailor was Dent-she regarded him with a kind of sick horror. Could she outwit these two who were plotting against her and her lover?-was there time?
She made straight for the place where she thought it most likely she should find Will. He generally spent his evenings with Hester Wright. When she reached the lodgings a neighbor told her that Hester was out; but as she was about to descend the stairs, with a sickening feeling at her heart, Will's whistle, as he bounded up three steps at a time, fell like the most joyful music on her ears. She sprang to him and clasped her arms around his neck.
"Will-dear Will-I ha' come-we must be wed to-night, Will."
She was panting and trembling, and her words were only coherent by reason of the great stress and force with which she emphasized them. Will wondered if she had taken leave of her senses.
"Come into Hester's room, Bet," he said, tenderly. "Here, set down, darling; why, how terrible you do tremble!"
"Oh, Will, I'm mortal frightened. There's more bad than good in this yer world; and the bad's agin' us-and bad things and bad people have such a power of strength in them, Will-and they'll part us if we don't outwit them. Oh, Will, let us be made man and wife this blessed night."
"But we can't, Bet. I'd like to—it could never be a minute too soon for me—but the license ain't due to me afore to-morrow, and Thursday is fixed up at St. Giles' Church for the parson to wed us. Thursday is not so very far off, sweetheart. Why, I expect it seems longer to me than to you, Bet, for I ha' loved you, as Jacob did Rachel, for many a long year. What's two days when you ha' waited years?" concluded Will, and he put his arm round Bet and tried to get her to rest her head on his shoulder.
She almost pushed his strong arm away.
"You don't understand," she said. "It's to-night or it's never—it's you and me to go away to-night in the darkness, and hide ourselves for a bit, and let the wicked do their worst—or it's you and me to be parted, Will, and me to be hungering for you, and you for me—allays and allays."
Here Bet related what Mother Bunch had told her—that there was a plot brewing, and how her father and Isaac Dent meant to ruin her and Will. She told her story with great excitement and emphasis—her eyes flashing, and the color coming and going in her cheeks. To her it was a terrible story, replete with all possibilities of parting and disaster. The terror of it had taken hold of her, and her teeth almost chattered as she gave emphasis to her words.
To her dismay, however, she saw that the tale itself made little impression on Will. He was much distressed at Bet's agitation, and did all in his power to soothe her; but he could not get himself to believe that Granger or Dent could possibly injure either of them. He had all an honest young fellow's sovereign contempt for these worthies, and he even gently laughed when Bet repeated her assurance that the deep plot they were hatching between them would succeed, and part her and Will forever.
"I ain't afeard," said Will, stoutly. "I don't believe in there being any plot, Bet. Mother Bunch has just had a bit of a dhrame, as she calls it, and she didn't hear half she thinks she heard. As to Granger and Dent, I know they don't love me, and they might do me a nasty turn, if they knew how. But then, they don't know how, Bet, darling; and I ain't going to hide and creep away in the darkness, not for no man. You're shook with trouble, poor Bet; but there ain't no fear—not the least in life; and we'll be wed on Thursday, sweetheart, and have a good time afterwards."
"Oh, Will, Will!" said Bet. Her lover's want of belief in her story seemed to her the crowning drop. She clasped her hands, and suddenly went down on her knees to him.
"Let us be wed to-night, Will!" she asked—"to save me from Isaac Dent, Will! Make me your true wife to-night, whether you believe the story or not!"
Here she cried and wept, and wrung her hands.
Will was dreadfully perturbed-he did not believe in any danger for himself, but he was distressed for Bet. He raised her gently from the floor.
"You know as I'd take you to my arms this minute, darling, ef it could be done," he said. "But it seems to me they hedge round a wedding with a sight of difficulties, and you must either eat your heart out waiting till the banns is called, or have a license. My license is due to-morrow, but not afore."
The idea, however, of the license was very dim to Bet.
"I thought the parson would say some words, and we might be man and wife," she said. "You could send him the license, whatever that means, by-and-bye, Will-but I'm sure the parson would say the good words over us to-night, and then we might go away together. There's a deal of things can be done, if one but tried; and you and me needn't have our hearts broke because we must wait for daylight to get that bit of paper. Oh, Will, let's go together and find the parson. Dear Will, darling, let's go at once!-let's ax him, leastways-and if he says nay, we'll abide by it. Let's go, Will, now, this very minute. Let's find the parson, and abide by his nay or his yea!"
Will, bewildered, agitated by Bet's suffering and despair, yielded a somewhat unwilling assent.
"But I must go to my lodgings first," he said. "For I ha' got some money to change. Ef the parson can be found, and ef he'll wait for his license until to-morrow, and say the good words over us to-night, Bet, why, we can cross to Birkenhead by the last boat this evening. But I'd a sight rather wait till Thursday," he added under his breath; "for it seems like running away when there's nought to run from."
Will's objection to so sudden a marriage was overruled by Bet's fervor and impetuosity; she would not listen to his objections, but every time he opened his lips shut him up with the emphatic remark, "It's now or never, sweetheart; ef it ain't to-night, something tells me as I'll never be wed to you."
She accompanied Will to the door of his lodgings, and paced up and down the narrow little street, chafing and trembling with impatience, while he ran upstairs to fetch the bank-notes which he had not yet changed. He came down in a few minutes, having donned his best jack-tar suit, and holding out a pretty sealskin purse to Bet.
"Just you see here," he said—"I found this in my room; I can't make out how it came there. Ain't it fine? Look—ain't it wonderful how anything can be turned out so neat? "and he opened the purse, and showed the bright red leather lining; then clasped it again, and stroked the soft seal covering.
"I'd like to give it to you, Bet," he said, "ef I knew how I come by it. It were lying on the floor, and the clasps shone when I held up the candle. I must ask Mrs. Jobling, my landlady, if she knows who it belongs to. It ain't likely as she'd own such a bonny bit o' a thing;" he fingered the purse admiringly, and then thrust it into one of his deep pockets.
"I'll give it to you if I can't find the owner, Bet," he said in conclusion. "I don't suppose you ever had anything so bonny."
Bet, however, was far too impatient and excited to be interested in the most beautiful purse that was ever made.
"Let it be now, Will," she said. "Most like it belongs to Mrs. Jobling—don't let's think of it now. Have you got the money in your pocket, Will, dear? And shall we go at once and find the parson?"
A flush came up into Will's bronzed cheeks.
"None so fast, sweetheart," he said. "What would you say to us going to be married and having never a ring to put on that finger o' yourn? I han't bought the ring yet—the wedding-ring, darling; but I ha' got money to buy it—ten pound; it does seem a sight of riches. Let's go down to Higgins' and change the notes, Bet. We can get the ring there." Bet did not object—she turned at once in the right direction, walking so fast that Will began to chaff her.
"You take my breath away," he said. "You forget that I've got sea- legs, and ain't a match for the land folks when they go at that pace."
"Oh, Will—if you could be in earnest!" said poor Bet. "I'm hurrying 'cause it's life or death to me. It gets late, and parson may be out—oh! a hundred things may happen—oh, if my heart didn't beat so hard!"
"Well, here we are, dear," said Will, and the two turned into the small close marine store presided over by Higgins.
That worthy came forward himself to meet the handsome couple who now stood at the other side of his grimy counter.
"Evenin'," he said. "What may I serve you with? Why, if it ain't Scarlett! I didn't know you at first, lad, and that's a fact. Evening young woman! Courting, eh?" he whispered in an aside to Scarlett.
"Oh, that's about done," said Will. "It's marrying we're after—could you fit this here young woman with a ring?" he added, and he took Bet's hand in his.
A tray of wedding rings was placed on the counter—they were all second-hand, and some of them much the worse for wear.
Will made his selection, choosing a fairly solid gold band. He slipped the ring into his pocket, smiled into Bet's anxious eyes, and taking out his bank-notes, spread them on the counter.
"You'll oblige me with change for these, Mr. Higgins?" he said. "See, it's a nice tidy little lot of money, ain't it? But it comes in handy; for a feller ain't wed every day of the week."
"It air a lot of money," said Higgins, in a contemplative tone. He took up the notes, and fingered them, feeling their texture and looking at the backs. "It air a tidy lot of money," he repeated, and he looked keenly into Will's honest face.
For all his bronzing the color would easily mount into this young sailor's cheeks-it did so now, and he spoke with a little offence.
"You're wondering how so much comes to the like of me," he said. "Well, it's easily answered. I sold my berth in the 'Good Queen Anne'-about the neatest boat in the docks, and the jolliest berth a feller ever had the luck to find-for this yer money. It comes in handy now as I'm about to be wed. But don't change it if you have no mind to, Mr. Tiggins. I can pass it in at the bank to-morrow morning."
At these words Bet turned deadly pale and gripped her companion's arm.
"No," she whispered hoarsely: "we must have the change to-night."
Higgins, who had been watching the pair, now spoke in that oily and seductive tone which had brought many excellent customers to his door.
"What do you take me for, Scarlett?" he said. "Ain't you, so to speak, an old friend, and one of the best customers as this yer house can wish to see? Of course I'll change the notes, man, and good luck to you and your lass there. Yes—of course I'll change the notes; but seeing as I'm poor, and the times is 'ard, you won't object to the usual percentage for obleeging a neighbor?"
"And what's that?" said Will. "I'm in a hurry," he added; "so I'll listen to anything in reason."
"I charge interest a shilling in the pound," said Higgins. "That'll be ten shillings on the two notes, and the ring seven-and-six— seventeen-and-six in total; that leaves nine pounds two-and-six- pence change—and here you air. Only," here Higgins produced pen and ink, "you'll obleege me by writing your name and where you lodges on the back of the notes."
"What's that for?" said Will, drawing back a step or two.
"Nothing, ef you don't want to do it," responded Higgins; "only I can't nohow change the notes without—it's a precaution I allus uses with regard to bank-notes, which sailors don't have every day in their pockets. No address, no change—you can please yourself."
"Oh, Will, do write," whispered Bet; and so urged, Will did dip his pen in the ink, and scrawled his name in a somewhat uncertain calligraphy on the back of each note. Mrs. Jobling's address was further added. He then received his change, and he and Bet hurried out of the shop.
"Sold!" whispered Higgins to himself; and an ugly grin appeared upon his face. "Now to send these notes up to the bank the first thing to-morrow,—and—and—well, I have no love for Isaac Dent, and Scarlett's the sort of feller as no one could dislike; but the times is 'ard and the worst of us must live."
Here Higgins rang a little bell. When his attendant answered the summons he told him that he was going out, but that if a sailor called Dent looked in, he was to be asked to wait.
Meanwhile Will and Bet were hurrying as fast as they could to that part of the town where St. Giles' Church was situated. The church was a landmark, and it was easy to find it; and not very difficult, either, to ascertain where Mr. Phillips, the hardworked curate, resided. Bet, who could read well, had decided that they would apply to the curate, not to the vicar.
"Mother knew a little about Mr. Phillips," she said; "and I see his name on the notice-board. He'll be maybe more willing to listen, for mother said he were poor, arter a fashion, himself."
The little house at which the two stopped was certainly humble-looking; and the parson's study, in which they presently found themselves, was poorly furnished, with a threadbare carpet, a sad dearth of books, and a very feeble semblance of a fire. The curate, a thin, gray-haired man, with a stoop, rose from his chair as the young couple came and stood before him. Will was feeling intensely sheepish and uncomfortable; but Bet, with the eagerness born of intense conviction, had no room for self-consciousness.
"Ef you please, sir," she said, flinging aside her mother's shawl, and speaking not only with her lips, but with her glowing cheeks and sparkling, lovely eyes-"ef you please, sir, this is Will Scarlett, and I'm-I'm Elizabeth Granger. Mother used to mind you when you preached, sir; and she often comed to your church when she was strong enough. We was to be wed at St. Giles', Will and me, come Thursday, parson." Here she paused and gasped; and her eyes grew full of tears.
"Yes," said Mr. Phillips, in a kind tone. "You and this young man-a sailor, I see-are to be married on Thursday; yes, very good. And you will make him an honest, faithful wife, I hope. Can I do anything for you? Anything to help either of you? Marriage is an honorable estate, none more so."
The tears were still brimming over in Bet's eyes. She had got so far, but now the words she wanted to say stuck in her throat. She looked appealingly at Will, who instantly forgot himself, and came to her rescue. Taking her hand in his, he led her up to the curate's little study table.