SUE A LITTLE HEROINE
L. T. MEADE
Author of "A Girl from America," "The Princess of the Revels," "Polly, a New-Fashioned Girl," "A Sweet Girl Graduate," etc.
New York The New York Book Company 1910
BIOGRAPHY AND BIBLIOGRAPHY
L. T. Meade (Mrs. Elizabeth Thomasina Smith), English novelist, was born at Bandon, County Cork, Ireland, 1854, the daughter of Rev. R. T. Meade, Rector of Novohal, County Cork, and married Toulmin Smith in 1879. She wrote her first book, Lettie's Last Home, at the age of seventeen and since then has been an unusually prolific writer, her stories attaining wide popularity on both sides of the Atlantic.
She worked in the British Museum, living in Bishopsgate Without, making special studies of East London life which she incorporated in her stories. She edited Atlanta for six years. Her pictures of girls, especially in the influence they exert on their elders, are drawn with intuitive fidelity; pathos, love, and humor, as in Daddy's Girl, flowing easily from her pen. She has traveled extensively, being devoted to motoring and other outdoor sports.
Among more than fifty novels she has written, dealing largely with questions of home life, are: David's Little Lad; Great St. Benedict's; A Knight of To-day (1877); Miss Toosey's Mission; Bel-Marjory (1878); Laddie; Outcast Robbin, or, Your Brother and Mine; A Cry from the Great City; White Lillie and Other Tales; Scamp and I; The Floating Light of Ringfinnan; Dot and Her Treasures; The Children's Kingdom: the Story of Great Endeavor; The Water Gipsies; A Dweller in Tents; Andrew Harvey's Wife; Mou-setse: A Negro Hero (1880); Mother Herring's Chickens (1881); A London Baby: the Story of King Roy (1883); Hermie's Rose-Buds and Other Stories; How it all Came Round; Two Sisters (1884); Autocrat of the Nursery; Tip Cat; Scarlet Anemones; The Band of Three; A Little Silver Trumpet; Our Little Ann; The Angel of Love (1885); A World of Girls (1886); Beforehand; Daddy's Boy; The O'Donnells of Inchfawn; The Palace Beautiful; Sweet Nancy (1887); Deb and the Duchess (1888); Nobody's Neighbors; Pen (1888); A Girl from America (1907).
I. BIG BEN'S VOICE. 1 II. A SERVANT OF GOD. 3 III. GOOD SECURITY. 7 IV. SOLITARY HOURS. 9 V. EAGER WORDS. 10 VI. DIFFERENT SORT OF WORK. 12 VII. SHOPPING. 21 VIII. COMPARISONS. 26 IX. A TRIP INTO THE COUNTRY. 31 X. THE RETURN TO LONDON. 35 XI. A NEW DEPARTURE. 44 XII. LEFT ALONE. 48 XIII. PETER HARRIS. 60 XIV. THE SEARCH. 66 XV. CONCENTRATION OF PURPOSE. 69 XVI. PICKLES. 74 XVII. CINDERELLA. 78 XVIII. THE METROPOLITAN FIRE BRIGADE. 79 XIX. A SAINTLY LADY. 83 XX. CAUGHT AGAIN. 87 XXI. SAFE HOME AT LAST. 94 XXII. NEWS OF SUE. 105 XXIII. AMATEUR DETECTIVE. 109 XXIV. MOTHER AND SON. 112 XXV. ABOUT RONALD. 113 XXVI. TWO CUPS OF COFFEE. 124 XXVII. DELAYED TRIAL. 127 XXVIII. CINDERELLA WOULD SHIELD THE REAL THIEF. 130 XXIX. A LITTLE HEROINE. 132 XXX. WHAT WAS HARRIS TO HER? 134 XXXI. A STERN RESOLVE. 136 XXXII. AN UNEXPECTED ACCIDENT. 137 XXXIII. A POINTED QUESTION. 138 XXXIV. PICKLES TO THE FORE AGAIN. 141 XXXV. THE WINGS ARE GROWING. 142 XXXVI. A CRISIS. 143 XXXVII. THE HAPPY GATHERING. 151
SUE: A LITTLE HEROINE.
BIG BEN'S VOICE.
Sue made a great effort to push her way to the front of the crowd. The street preacher was talking, and she did not wish to lose a word. She was a small, badly made girl, with a freckled face and hair inclined to red, but her eyes were wonderfully blue and intelligent. She pushed and pressed forward into the thick of the crowd. She felt a hand on her shoulder, and looking up, saw a very rough man gazing at her.
"Be that you, Peter Harris?" said Sue. "An' why didn't yer bring Connie along?"
"Hush!" said some people in the crowd.
The preacher raised his voice a little higher:
"'Tell His disciples and Peter that He goeth before you into Galilee.'"
Peter Harris, the rough man, trembled slightly. Sue found herself leaning against him. She knew quite well that his breath was coming fast.
"His disciples and Peter," she said to herself.
The street preacher had a magnificent voice. It seemed to roll above the heads of the listening crowd, or to sink to a penetrating whisper which found its echo in their hearts. The deep, wonderful eyes of the man had a power of making people look at him. Sue gazed with all her might and main.
"Father John be a good un," she said to herself. "He be the best man in all the world."
After the discourse—which was very brief and full of stories, and just the sort which those rough people could not help listening to—a hymn was sung, and then the crowd dispersed.
Sue was amongst them. She was in a great hurry. She forgot all about John Atkins, the little street preacher to whom she had been listening. She soon found herself in a street which was gaily lighted; there was a gin-palace at one end, another in the middle, and another at the farther end. This was Saturday night: Father John was fond of holding vigorous discourses on Saturday nights. Sue stopped to make her purchases. She was well-known in the neighborhood, and as she stepped in and out of one shop and then of another, she was the subject of a rough jest or a pleasant laugh, just as the mood of the person she addressed prompted one or other. She spent a few pence out of her meager purse, her purchases were put into a little basket, and she found her way home. The season was winter. She turned into a street back of Westminster; it went by the name of Adam Street. It was very long and rambling, with broken pavements, uneven roadways, and very tall, narrow, and dirty houses.
In a certain room on the fourth floor of one of the poorest of these houses lay a boy of between ten and eleven years of age. He was quite alone in the room, but that fact did not at all insure his being quiet. All kinds of sounds came to him—sounds from the street, sounds from below stairs, sounds from overhead. There were shrieking voices and ugly laughter, and now and then there were shrill screams. The child was accustomed to these things, however, and it is doubtful whether he heard them.
He was a sad-looking little fellow, with that deadly white complexion which children who never go into the fresh air possess. His face, however, was neither discontented nor unhappy. He lay very still, with patient eyes, quite touching in their absolute submission. Had any one looked hard at little Giles they would have noticed something else on his face—it was a listening look. The sounds all around did not discompose him, for his eyes showed that he was waiting for something. It came. Over and above the discord a Voice filled the air. Nine times it repeated itself, slowly, solemnly, with deep vibrations. It was "Big Ben" proclaiming the hour. The boy had heard the chimes which preceded the hour; they were beautiful, of course, but it was the voice of Big Ben himself that fascinated him.
"Ain't he a real beauty to-night?" thought the child. "How I wishes as Sue 'ud hear him talk like that! Sometimes he's more weakly in his throat, poor fellow! but to-night he's in grand voice."
The discord, which for one brief moment was interrupted for the child by the beautiful, harmonious notes, continued in more deafening fashion than ever. Children cried; women scolded; men cursed and swore. In the midst of the din the room door was opened and a girl entered.
"Sue!" cried Giles.
"Yes," answered Sue, putting down her basket as she spoke. "I'm a bit late; there wor a crowd in the street, and I went to hear him. He wor grand."
"Oh, worn't he?" said Giles. "I never did know him to be in such beautiful voice."
Sue came up and stared at the small boy. Her good-natured but somewhat common type of face was a great contrast to his.
"Whatever are you talking about?" she said. "You didn't hear him; you can't move, poor Giles!"
"But I did hear him," replied the boy. "I feared as I'd get off to sleep, but I didn't. I never did hear Big Ben in such voice—he gave out his text as clear as could be."
"Lor', Giles!" exclaimed Sue, "I didn't mean that stupid clock; I means Father John. I squeezed up as close as possible to him, and I never missed a word as fell from his lips. Peter Harris were there too. I wonder how he felt. Bad, I 'spect, when he remembers the way he treated poor Connie. And oh, Giles! what do yer think? The preacher spoke to him jest as clear as clear could be, and he called him by his name—Peter. 'Tell His disciples and Peter,' Father John cried, and I could feel Peter Harris jump ahind me."
"Wor that his text, Sue?"
"Yes, all about Peter. It wor wonnerful."
"Well, my text were, 'No more pain,'" said the boy. "I ache bad nearly always, but Big Ben said, 'No more pain,' as plain as he could speak, poor old fellow! It was nine times he said it. It were werry comforting."
Sue made no reply. She was accustomed to that sort of remark from Giles. She busied herself putting the kettle on the fire to boil, and then cleaned a little frying-pan which by-and-by was to toast a herring for Giles's supper and her own.
"Look what I brought yer," she said to the boy. "It were turning a bit, Tom Watkins said, and he gave it me for a ha'penny, but I guess frying and a good dash of salt 'ull make it taste fine. When the kettle boils I'll pour out your tea; you must want it werry bad."
"Maybe I do and maybe I don't," answered Giles. "It's 'No more pain' I'm thinking of. Sue, did you never consider that maybe ef we're good and patient Lord Christ 'ull take us to 'eaven any day?"
"No," answered Sue; "I'm too busy." She stood for a minute reflecting. "And I don't want to go to 'eaven yet," she continued; "I want to stay to look after you."
Giles smiled. "It's beautiful in 'eaven," he said. "I'd like to go, but I wouldn't like to leave you, Sue."
"Take your tea now, there's a good fellow," answered Sue, who was nothing if not matter-of-fact. "Aye, dear!" she continued as she poured it out and then waited for Giles to raise the cup to his lips, "Peter Harris do look bad. I guess he's sorry he was so rough on Connie. But now let's finish our supper, and I'll prepare yer for bed, Giles, for I'm desp'rate tired."
A SERVANT OF GOD.
John Atkins, the street preacher, was a little man who led a wonderful life. He was far better educated than most people of his station, and in addition his mind was tender in feeling and very sensitive and loving. He regarded everybody as his brothers and sisters, and in especial he took to his heart all sorrowful people. He never grumbled or repined, but he looked upon his life as a pilgrimage to a better country, and did not, therefore, greatly trouble if things were not quite smooth for him. This little man had a very wide circle of friends. The fact is, he had more power of keeping peace and order in the very poor part of London, back of Westminster, where he lived, than had any dignitary of the Church, any rector, any curate, or any minister, be he of what persuasion he might. Father John was very humble about himself. Indeed, one secret of his success lay in the fact that he never thought of himself at all.
Having preached on this Saturday evening, as was his wont, to a larger crowd than usual, he went home. As he walked a passer-by could have seen that he was lame; he used a crutch. With the winter rain beating on him he looked insignificant. Presently he found the house where he had a room, went up the stairs, and entered, opening the door with a latch-key. A fire was burning here, and a small paraffin lamp with a red shade over it cast a warm glow over the little place. The moment the light fell upon Father John his insignificance vanished. That was a grand head and face which rose above the crippled body. The head was high and splendidly proportioned. It was crowned with a wealth of soft brown hair, which fell low on the shoulders. The forehead was lofty, straight, and full; the mouth rather compressed, with firm lines round it; the eyes were very deep set—they were rather light gray in color, but the pupils were unusually large. The pupils and the peculiar expression of the eyes gave them a wonderful power. They could speak when every other feature in the face was quiet.
"I don't like them—I dread them," said Peter Harris on one occasion. "Aye, but don't I love 'em just!" remarked little Giles.
Giles and Sue were special friends of John Atkins. They had, in fact, been left in his care by their mother three years before this story begins. This was the way they had first learned to know Father John.
The man had a sort of instinct for finding out when people were in trouble and when they specially needed him. There was a poor woman lying on her dying bed, and a boy and a girl were kneeling close to her.
"Keep a good heart up, Giles," she said to the boy. "I know I'm goin' to leave yer, and you're as lame as lame can be, but then there's Sue. Sue has a deal o' gumption for such a young un. Sue won't let yer want, Giles, lad; you need never go to the workhouse while Sue's alive."
"No, that he needn't, mother," answered Sue.
"Can't yer get back on to yer sofa, Giles?" she added, turning to the boy. "You'll break your back kneeling by mother all this time."
"No, I won't; I'd rather stay," answered the boy. His eyes were full of light; he kept on stroking his mother's hand.
"Go on, mother," he said. "Tell us more. You're goin' to 'eaven, and you'll see father." A sob strangled his voice for a minute.
"Yes, I'll see my good 'usband—that is, I hope so; I can but trust—I allus have trusted, though often, ef I may say the truth, I couldn't tell what I were a-trusting to. Somehow, whatever folks say, there is a Providence."
"Oh, mother!" said Giles, "God is so beautiful—when you see father again you'll know that."
"Mother," interrupted Sue, "does yer think as Providence 'ull get me constant work at the sewing, enough to keep Giles and me?"
"I dunno, Sue," answered the woman. "I've trusted a good bit all my life, and more specially since your father was took, and somehow we haven't quite starved. Happen it'll be the same with Giles and you."
The boy sighed. His back was aching terribly. His heart was breaking at the thought of losing his mother; he struggled to continue kneeling by the bedside, but each moment the effort became greater.
The children were kneeling so when a quick, light step was heard on the stairs, and a little man entered. It was too dark in the room for the children to see his face; they heard, however, a very pleasant voice. It said in cheerful tones:
"Why haven't you fire here, and a candle? Can I help you?"
"There ain't much candle left," answered Giles.
"And mother's dying," continued Sue. "She don't mind the dark—do yer, mother?"
The little man made no reply in words, but taking some matches from his pocket, and also a candle, he struck a light. He placed the candle in a sconce on the wall, and then turned to the three.
"Be yer a parson?" asked the woman.
"I am a servant of God," answered Atkins.
"I'm real glad as you're a parson," she answered; "you can make it all right between Almighty God and me."
"You are mistaken; I can't do that. That is Jesus Christ's work. But I will pray with you—let me hold your hand, and we will pray together."
Then and there in the dismal attic Father John spoke out his heart in the following simple words. Even Sue never forgot those words to the latest day she lived:
"Lord God Almighty, look down upon this dying woman. Thy Son died for her and she knows it not. Lord, she is in great darkness, and she is so near death that she has no time to learn the truth in its fullness; but Thou who art in the light can show some of Thy light to her. Now, in her dying hour, reveal to her Thyself."
The dying woman fixed her glittering eyes on the strange man. When he ceased speaking she smiled; then she said, slowly:
"I allus felt that I could trust in Providence."
She never spoke after that, and half an hour afterwards she died.
This was the beginning of Father John's friendship with Giles and Sue.
The next day Sue, by dint of many and anxious inquiries, found him out, and put her queer little unkempt head into his room.
"Ef yer please, parson, may I speak to yer 'bout Giles and me?"
"Certainly, my little girl. Sit down and tell me what I can do for you."
"Parson," said Sue, with much entreaty in her voice and many a pucker on her brow, "what I wants to say is a good deal. I wants ter take care o' Giles, to keep up the bit o' home and the bit o' victual. It 'ud kill Giles ef he wor to be took to the work'us; and I promised mother as I'd keep 'im. Mother wor allers a-trustin', and she trusted Giles ter me."
Here Sue's voice broke off into a sob, and she put up her dirty apron to her eyes.
"Don't cry, my dear," answered Atkins kindly; "you must not break your word to your mother. Will it cost you so much money to keep yourself and Giles in that little attic?"
"It ain't that," said she, proudly. "It ain't a bit as I can't work, fur I can, real smart at 'chinery needlework. I gets plenty to do, too, but that 'ere landlady, she ain't a bit like mother; she'd trusten nobody, and she up this morning, and mother scarce cold, and says as she'd not let her room to Giles and me 'cept we could get some un to go security fur the rent; and we has no un as 'ud go security, so we must go away the day as mother is buried, and Giles must go to the work'us; and it 'ull kill Giles, and mother won't trust me no more."
"Don't think that, my child; nothing can shake your mother's trust where God has taken her now. But do you want me to help you?"
Sue found the color mounting to her little, weather-beaten face. A fear suddenly occurred to her that she had been audacious—that this man was a stranger, that her request was too great for her to ask. But something in the kindness of the eyes looking straight into hers brought sudden sunshine to her heart and courage to her resolve. With a burst, one word toppling over the other, out came the whole truth:
"Please, sir—please, sir, I thought as you might go security fur Giles and me. We'd pay real honest. Oh, sir, will you, jest because mother did trusten so werry much?"
"I will, my child, and with all the heart in the world. Come home with me now, and I will arrange the whole matter with your landlady."
John Atkins was always wont to speak of Sue and Giles as among the successes of his life. This was not the first time he had gone security for his poor, and many of his poor had decamped, leaving the burden of their unpaid rent on him. He never murmured when such failures came to him. He was just a trifle more particular in looking not so much into the merits as the necessities of the next case that came to his knowledge. But no more, than if all his flock had been honest as the day, did he refuse his aid. This may have been a weakness on the man's part; very likely, for he was the sort of man whom all sensible and long-headed people would have spoken about as a visionary, an enthusiast, a believer in doing to others as he would be done by—a person, in short, without a grain of everyday sense to guide him. Atkins would smile when such people lectured him on what they deemed his folly.
Nevertheless, though he took failure with all resignation, success, when it came to him, was stimulating, and Giles and Sue he classed among his successes.
The mother died and was buried, but the children did not leave their attic, and Sue, brave little bread-winner, managed not only to pay the rent but to keep the gaunt wolf of hunger from the door. Sue worked as a machinist for a large City house.
Every day she rose with the dawn, made the room as tidy as she could for Giles, and then started for her long walk to the neighborhood of Cheapside. In a room with sixty other girls Sue worked at the sewing-machine from morning till night. It was hard labor, as she had to work with her feet as well as her hands, producing slop clothing at the rate of a yard a minute. Never for an instant might her eyes wander from the seam; and all this severe work was done in the midst of an ear-splitting clatter, which alone would have worn out a person not thoroughly accustomed to it.
But Sue was not unhappy. For three years now she had borne without breaking down this tremendous strain on her health. The thought that she was keeping Giles in the old attic made her bright and happy, and her shrill young voice rose high and merry above those of her companions. No; Sue, busy and honest, was not unhappy. But her fate was a far less hard one than Giles's.
Giles had not always been lame. When first his mother held him in her arms he was both straight and beautiful. Though born of poor parents and in London, he possessed a health and vigor seldom bestowed upon such children. In those days his father was alive, and earning good wages as a fireman in the London Fire Brigade. There was a comfortable home for both Sue and Giles, and Giles was the very light and sunshine of his father's and mother's life. To his father he had been a special source of pride and rejoicing. His beauty alone would have made him so. Sue was essentially an everyday child, but Giles had a clear complexion, dark-blue eyes, and curling hair. Giles as a baby and a little child was very beautiful. As his poor, feeble-looking mother carried him about—for she was poor and feeble-looking even in her palmy days—people used to turn and gaze after the lovely boy. The mother loved him passionately, but to the father he was as the apple of his eye.
Giles's father had married a wife some degrees below him both intellectually and socially. She was a hard-working, honest, and well-meaning soul, but she was not her husband's equal. He was a man with great force of character, great bravery, great powers of endurance. Before he had joined the Fire Brigade he had been a sailor, and many tales did he tell to his little Giles of his adventures on the sea. Sue and her mother used to find these stories dull, but to Giles they seemed as necessary as the air he breathed. He used to watch patiently for hours for the rare moments when his father was off duty, and then beg for the food which his keen mental appetite craved for. Mason could both read and write, and he began to teach his little son. This state of things continued until Giles was seven years old. Then there came a dreadful black-letter day for the child; for the father, the end of life.
Every event of that torturing day was ever after engraved on the little boy's memory. He and his father, both in high spirits, started off for their last walk together. Giles used to make it a practice to accompany his father part of the way to his station, trotting back afterwards safely and alone to his mother and sister. To-day their way lay through Smithfield Market, and the boy, seeing the Martyrs' Monument in the center of the market-place, asked his father eagerly about it.
"Look, father, look!" he said, pointing with his finger. "What is that?"
"That is the figure of an angel, lad. Do you see, it is pointing up to heaven. Do you know why?"
"No, father; tell us."
"Long ago, my lad, there were a lot of brave people brought just there where the angel stands; they were tied to stakes in the ground and set fire to and burned—burned until they died."
"Burned, father?" asked little Giles in a voice of horror.
"Yes, boy. They were burned because they were so brave they would rather be burned than deny the good God. They were called martyrs, and that angel stands there now to remind people about them and to show how God took them straight to heaven."
"I think they were grand," answered the boy, his eyes kindling. "Can't people be like that now?"
"Any one who would rather die than neglect a duty has, to my mind, the same spirit," answered the man. "But now, lad, run home, for I must be off."
"Oh, father, you are going to that place where the wonderful new machinery is, and you said I might look at it. May I come?"
The father hesitated, finally yielded, and the two went on together. But together they were never to come back.
That very day, with the summer sun shining, and all the birds in the country far away singing for joy, there came a message for the brave father. He was suddenly, in the full prime of his manly vigor, to leave off doing God's work down here, doubtless to take it up with nobler powers above. A fireman literally works with his life in his hands. He may have to resign it at any moment at the call of duty. This trumpet-call, which he had never neglected, came now for Giles Mason.
A fire broke out in the house where little Giles watched with keen intelligence the new machinery. The machinery was destroyed, the child lamed for life, and the brave father, in trying to rescue him and others, was so injured by falling stones and pieces of woodwork that he only lived a few hours.
The two were laid side by side in the hospital to which they were carried.
"Father," said the little one, nestling close to the injured and dying man, "I think people can be martyrs now!"
But the father was past words, though he heard the child, for he smiled and pointed upwards. The smile and the action were so significant, and reminded the child so exactly of the angel who guards the Martyrs' Monument, that ever afterwards he associated his brave father with those heroes and heroines of whom the sacred writer says that "the world is not worthy."
Giles was kept in the hospital for many weeks, even months. All that could be done was done for him; but the little, active feet were never to walk again, and the spine was so injured that he could not even sit upright. When all that could be done had been done and failed, the boy was sent back to his broken-down and widowed mother.
Mrs. Mason had removed from the comfortable home where she lived during her husband's lifetime to the attic in a back street of Westminster, where she finally died. She took in washing for a livelihood, and Sue, now twelve years old, was already an accomplished little machinist.
They were both too busy to have time to grieve, and at night were too utterly worn-out not to sleep soundly. They were kind to Giles lying on his sick-bed; they both loved him dearly, but they neither saw, nor even tried to understand, the hunger of grief and longing which filled his poor little mind.
His terrible loss, his own most terrible injuries, had developed in the boy all that sensitive nerve organism which can render life so miserable to its possessor. To hear his beloved father's name mentioned was a torture to him; and yet his mother and Sue spoke of it with what seemed to the boy reckless indifference day after day. Two things, however, comforted him—one the memory of the angel figure over the Martyrs' Monument at Smithfield, the other the deep notes of Big Ben. His father, too, had been a martyr, and that angel stood there to signify his victory as well as the victory of those others who withstood the torture by fire; and Big Ben, with its solemn, vibrating notes, seemed to his vivid imagination like that same angel speaking.
Though an active, restless boy before his illness, he became now very patient. He would lie on his back, not reading, for he had forgotten what little his father taught him, but apparently lost in thought, from morning to night. His mother was often obliged to leave him alone, but he never murmured at his long, solitary hours; indeed, had there been any one by to listen to all the words he said to himself at these times, they would have believed that the boy enjoyed them.
Thus three years passed away. In those three years all the beauty had left little Giles's face; all the brightness had fled from his eyes; he was now a confirmed invalid, white and drawn and pinched. Then his poor, tired-out mother died. She had worked uncomplainingly, but far beyond her strength, until suddenly she sickened and in a few days was dead. Giles, however, while losing a mother, had gained a friend. John Atkins read the sensitive heart of the boy like a book. He came to see him daily, and soon completed the reading-lessons which his father had begun. As soon as the boy could read he was no longer unhappy. His sad and troubled mind need no longer feed on itself; he read what wise and great men thought, for Atkins supplied him with books. Atkins's books, it is true, were mostly of a theological nature, but once he brought him a battered Shakespeare; and Sue also, when cash was a little flush, found an old volume of the Arabian Nights on a book-stall. These two latter treasures gave great food to the active imagination of little Giles.
 In July 1877 arrangements were made to provide for the families of firemen who were killed in the performance of their duty, but nothing was done for them before that date.
When John Atkins was quite young he was well-to-do. His father and mother had kept a good shop, and not only earned money for their needs but were able to put by sufficient for a rainy day. John was always a small and delicate child, and as he grew older he developed disease of the spine, which not only gave him a deformed appearance but made him slightly lame. Nevertheless, he was an eager little scholar, and his father was able to send him to a good school. The boy worked hard, and eagerly read and learned all that came in his way.
Thus life was rather pleasant than otherwise with John Atkins up to his fifteenth year, but about then there came misfortunes. The investment into which his father had put all his hard-won earnings was worthless; the money was lost. This was bad enough, but there was worse to follow. Not only had the money disappeared, but the poor man's heart was broken. He ceased to attend to his business; his customers left him to go elsewhere; his wife died suddenly, and he himself quickly followed her to the grave.
After these misfortunes John Atkins had a bad illness himself. He grew better after a time, took to cobbling as a trade, and earned enough to support himself. How he came to take up street preaching, and in consequence to be much beloved by his neighbors, happened simply enough.
On a certain Sunday evening he was walking home from the church where he attended, his heart all aglow with the passionate words of the preacher he had been listening to. The preacher had made Bunyan the subject of his discourse, and the author of the Pilgrim's Progress was at that time the hero of all heroes in the mind of Atkins. He was thinking of his wonderful pilgrimage as he hurried home. He walked on. Suddenly, turning a corner, he knocked up against a man, who, half-reeling, came full-tilt against him.
"Aye, Peter," he said, knowing the man, and perceiving that he was far too tipsy to get to his home with safety, "I'll just walk home with you, mate. I've got an apple in my pocket for the little wench."
The man made no objection, and they walked on. At the next corner they saw a crowd, all listening eagerly to the words of a large, red-faced man who, mounted on a chair, addressed them. On the burning, glowing heart of John Atkins fell the following terrible words:
"For there be no God, and there be nothing before us but to die as the beasts die. Let us get our fill of pleasure and the like of that, neighbors, for there ain't nothing beyond the grave."
"It's a lie!" roared Atkins.
The words had stung him like so many fiery serpents. He rushed into the midst of the crowd; he forgot Peter Harris; he sprang on to the chair which the other man in his astonishment had vacated, and poured out a whole string of eager, passionate words. At that moment he discovered that he had a wonderful gift. There was the message in his heart which God had put there, and he was able to deliver it. His words were powerful. The crowd, who had listened without any great excitement to the unbeliever, came close now to the man of God, applauding him loudly. Atkins spoke of the Fatherhood of God and of His love.
"Ain't that other a coward?" said two or three rough voices when Atkins ceased to speak. "And he comes here talking them lies every Sunday night," said one poor woman. "Come you again, master, and tell us the blessed truth."
This decided Atkins. He went to his parish clergyman, an overworked and badly paid man, and told him the incident. He also spoke of his own resolve. He would go to these sheep who acknowledged no Shepherd, and tell them as best he could of a Father, a Home, a Hope. The clergyman could not but accept the services of this fervent city missionary.
"Get them to church if you can," he said.
"Aye, if I can," answered Atkins; "but I will compel them to enter the Church above—that is the main thing."
Soon he began to know almost all the poor folks who crowded to hear him. In their troubles he was with them; when joy came he heard first about it, and rejoiced most of all; and many a poor face of a tired woman or worn-out man, or even a little child, looking into his, grew brighter in the presence of death.
DIFFERENT SORT OF WORK.
Connie was a very pretty girl. She was between thirteen and fourteen years of age, and very small and delicate-looking. Her hair was of a pale, soft gold; her eyes were blue; she had a delicate complexion, pink and white—almost like a china figure, Sue said; Giles compared her to an angel. Connie was in the same trade that Sue earned her bread by; she also was a machinist in a large warehouse in the City. All day long she worked at the sewing-machine, going home with Sue night after night, glad of Sue's sturdy support, for Connie was much more timid than her companion.
Connie was the apple of Harris's eye, his only child. He did everything he could for her; he lived for her. If any one could make him good, Connie could; but she was sadly timid; she dreaded the terrible moments when he returned home, having taken more than was good for him. At these times she would slink away to visit Giles and Sue, and on more than one occasion she had spent the night with the pair rather than return to her angry father. Some months, however, before this story begins, a terrible misfortune had come to Peter Harris. He had come home on a certain evening worse than usual from the effects of drink. Connie happened to be in. She had dressed herself with her usual exquisite neatness. She always kept the place ship-shape. The hearth was always tidily swept. She managed her father's earnings, which were quite considerable, and the wretched man could have had good food and a comfortable home, and been happy as the day was long, if only the craze for drink had not seized him.
Connie was very fond of finery, and she was now trimming a pretty hat to wear on the following Sunday. Not long ago she had made a new friend, a girl at the warehouse of the name of Agnes Coppenger. Agnes was older than Connie. She was the kind of girl who had a great admiration for beauty, and when she saw that people turned to look at pretty Connie with her sweet, refined face and delicate ways, she hoped that by having such a pleasant companion she also might come in for her share of admiration. She therefore began to make much of Connie. She praised her beauty, and invited her to her own home. There Connie made companions who were not nearly such desirable ones as Sue and Giles.
She began to neglect Sue and Giles, and to spend more and more of her time with Agnes.
On a certain day when the two girls were working over their sewing-machines, the whir of the numerous machines filling the great warehouse, Agnes turned to Connie.
"When we go out at morning break I 'ave a word to say to yer."
Connie's eyes brightened.
"You walk with me," whispered Agnes again.
An overseer came round. Talking was forbidden in the great room, and the girls went on with their mechanical employment, turning out long seam after long seam of delicate stitches. The fluff from the work seemed to smother Connie that morning. She had inherited her mother's delicacy. She coughed once or twice. There was a longing within her to get away from this dismal, this unhealthy life. She felt somehow, down deep in her heart, that she was meant for better things. The child was by nature almost a poet. She could have worshiped a lovely flower. As to the country, what her feelings would have been could she have seen it almost baffles description.
Now, Sue, working steadily away at her machine a little farther down the room, had none of these sensations. Provided that Sue could earn enough money to keep Giles going, that was all she asked of life. She was as matter-of-fact as a young girl could be; and as to pining for what she had not got, it never once entered her head.
At twelve o'clock there was a break of half-an-hour. The machinists were then turned out of the building. It did not matter what sort of day it was, whether the sun shone with its summer intensity, or whether the snow fell in thick flakes—whatever the condition of the outside world, out all the working women had to go. None could skulk behind; all had to seek the open air.
Connie coughed now as the bitter blast blew against her cheeks.
"Isn't it cold?" she said.
She expected to see Agnes by her side, but it was Sue she addressed.
"I've got a penny for pease-pudding to-day," said Sue. "Will you come and have a slice, Connie? Or do yer want somethin' better? Your father, Peter Harris, can let yer have more than a penny for yer dinner."
"Oh, yes," answered Connie; "'tain't the money—I 'aven't got not a bit of happetite, not for nothing; but I want to say a word to Agnes Coppenger, and I don't see her."
"Here I be," said Agnes, coming up at that moment. "Come right along, Connie; I've got a treat for yer."
The last words were uttered in a low whisper, and Sue, finding she was not wanted, went off in another direction. She gave little sighs as she did so. What was wrong with pretty Connie, and why did she not go with her? It had been her custom to slip her hand inside Sue's sturdy arm. During the half-hour interval, the girls used to repair together to the nearest cheap restaurant, there to secure what nourishing food their means permitted. They used to chatter to one another, exchanging full confidences, and loving each other very much.
But for some time now Connie had only thought of Agnes Coppenger, and Sue felt out in the cold.
"Can't be helped," she said to herself; "but if I am not mistook, Agnes is a bad un, and the less poor Connie sees of her the better."
Sue entered the restaurant, which was now packed full of factory girls, and she asked eagerly for her penn'orth of pease-pudding.
Meanwhile Connie and Agnes were very differently employed. When the two girls found themselves alone, Agnes looked full at Connie and said:
"I'm going to treat yer."
"Oh, no, you ain't," said Connie, who was proud enough in her way.
"Yes, but I be," said Agnes; "I ha' lots o' money, bless yer! Here, we'll come in here."
An A.B.C. shop stood invitingly open just across the road. Connie had always looked at these places of refreshment with open-eyed admiration, and with the sort of sensation which one would have if one stood at the gates of Paradise. To enter any place so gorgeous as an A.B.C., to be able to sit down and have one's tea or coffee or any other refreshment at one of those little white marble tables, seemed to her a degree of refinement scarcely to be thought about. The A.B.C. was a sort of forbidden fruit to Connie, but Agnes had been there before, and Agnes had described the delight of the place.
"The quality come in 'ere," said Agnes, "an' they horders all sorts o' things, from mutton-chops to poached heggs. I am goin' in to-day, and so be you."
"Oh, no," said Connie, "you can't afford it."
"That's my lookout," answered Agnes. "I've half-a-crown in my pocket, and ef I choose to have a good filling meal, and ef I choose that you shall have one too, why, that is my lookout."
As Agnes spoke she pulled her companion through the swinging door, and a minute later the two young girls had a little table between them, not far from the door. Agnes called in a lofty voice to one of the waitresses.
"Coffee for two," she said, "and rolls and butter and poached heggs; and see as the heggs is well done, and the toast buttered fine and thick. Now then, look spruce, won't yer?"
The waitress went off to attend to Agnes's requirements. Agnes sat back in her chair with a sort of lofty, fine-lady air which greatly impressed poor Connie. By-and-by the coffee, the rolls and butter, and the poached eggs appeared. A little slip of paper with the price of the meal was laid close to Agnes's plate, and she proceeded to help her companion to the good viands.
"It's this sort of meal you want hevery day," she said. "Now then, eat as hard as ever you can, and while you're eating let me talk, for there's a deal to say, and we must be back in that factory afore we can half do justice to our wittles."
Connie sipped her coffee, and looked hard at her companion.
"What is it?" she asked suddenly. "What's all the fuss, Agnes? Why be you so chuff to poor Sue, and whatever 'ave you got to say?"
"This," said Agnes. "You're sick o' machine-work, ain't you?"
"Oh, that I be!" said Connie, stretching her arms a little, and suppressing a yawn. "It seems to get on my narves, like. I am that miserable when I'm turning that horrid handle and pressing that treadle up and down, up and down, as no words can say. I 'spect it's the hair so full of fluff an' things, too; some'ow I lose my happetite for my or'nary feed when I'm working at that 'orrid machine."
"I don't feel it that way," said Agnes in a lofty tone. "But then, I am wery strong. I can heat like anything, whatever I'm a-doing of. There, Connie; don't waste the good food. Drink up yer corffee, and don't lose a scrap o' that poached egg, for ef yer do it 'ud be sinful waste. Well, now, let me speak. I know quite a different sort o' work that you an' me can both do, and ef you'll come with me this evening I can tell yer all about it."
"What sort of work?" asked Connie.
"Beautiful, refined—the sort as you love. But I am not going to tell yer ef yer give me away."
"What do you mean by that, Agnes?"
"I means wot I say—I'll tell yer to-night ef yer'll come 'ome with me."
"Yer mean that I'm to spend all the evening with yer?" asked Connie.
"Yes—that's about it. You are to come 'ome with me, and we'll talk. Why, bless yer! with that drinkin' father o' yourn, wot do you want all alone by yer lonesome? You give me a promise. And now I must pay hup, and we'll be off."
"I'll come, o' course," said Connie after brief reflection. "Why shouldn't I?" she added. "There's naught to keep me to home."
The girls left the A.B.C. shop and returned to their work.
Whir! whir! went the big machines. The young heads were bent over their accustomed toil; the hands on the face of the great clock which Connie so often looked at went on their way. Slowly—very slowly—the time sped. Would that long day ever come to an end?
The machinists' hours were from eight o'clock in the morning to six in the evening. Sometimes, when there were extra lots of ready-made clothes to be produced, they were kept till seven or even eight o'clock. But for this extra work there was a small extra pay, so that few of them really minded. But Connie dreaded extra hours extremely. She was not really dependent on the work, although Peter would have been very angry with his girl had she idled her time. She herself, too, preferred doing this to doing nothing. But to-night, of all nights, she was most impatient to get away with Agnes in order to discover what that fascinating young person's secret was.
She looked impatiently at the clock; so much so that Agnes herself, as she watched her eyes, chuckled now and then.
"She'll be an easy prey," thought Agnes Coppenger. "I'll soon get 'er into my power."
At six o'clock there was no further delay; no extra work was required, and the machinists poured into the sloppy, dark, and dreary streets.
"Come along now, quickly," said Agnes. "Don't wait for Sue; Sue has nothing to do with you from this time out."
"Oh dear! oh dear!" said Connie. "But I don't want to give up Sue and Giles. You ha' never seen little Giles Mason?"
"No," replied Agnes, "and don't want to. Wot be Giles to me?"
"Oh," said Connie, "ef yer saw 'im yer couldn't but love 'im. He's the wery prettiest little fellow that yer ever clapped yer two eyes on—with 'is delicate face an' 'is big brown eyes—and the wonnerful thoughts he have, too. Poetry ain't in it. Be yer fond o' poetry yerself, Agnes?"
"I fond o' poetry?" almost screamed Agnes. "Not I! That is, I never heerd it—don't know wot it's like. I ha' no time to think o' poetry. I'm near mad sometimes fidgeting and fretting how to get myself a smart 'at, an' a stylish jacket, an' a skirt that hangs with a sort o' swing about it. But you, now—you never think on yer clothes."
"Oh yes, but I do," said Connie; "and I ha' got a wery pwitty new dress now as father guv me not a fortnight back; and w'en father don't drink he's wery fond o' me, an' he bought this dress at the pawnshop."
"Lor', now, did he?" said Agnes. "Wot sort be it, Connie?"
"Dark blue, with blue velvet on it. It looks wery stylish."
"You'd look like a lydy in that sort o' dress," said Agnes. "You've the face of a lydy—that any one can see."
"Have I?" said Connie. She put up her somewhat roughened hand to her smooth little cheeks.
"Yes, you 'ave; and wot I say is this—yer face is yer fortoon. Now, look yer 'ere. We'll stand at this corner till the Westminster 'bus comes up, and then we'll take a penn'orth each, and that'll get us wery near 'ome. Yer don't think as yer father'll be 'ome to-night, Connie?"
"'Tain't likely," replied Connie; "'e seldom comes in until it's time for 'im to go to bed."
"Well then, that's all right. When we get to Westminster, you skid down Adam Street until yer get to yer diggin's; an' then hup you goes and changes yer dress. Into the very genteel dark-blue costoom you gets, and down you comes to yer 'umble servant wot is waitin' for yer below stairs."
This programme was followed out in all its entirety by Connie. The omnibus set the girls down not far from her home. Connie soon reached her room. No father there, no fire in the grate. She turned on the gas and looked around her.
The room was quite a good one, of fair size, and the furniture was not bad of its sort. Peter Harris himself slept on a trundle-bed in the sitting-room, but Connie had a little room all to herself just beyond. Here she kept her small bits of finery, and in especial the lovely new costume which her father had given her.
She was not long in slipping off her working-clothes. Then she washed her face and hands, and brushed back her soft, glistening, pale-golden hair, and put on the dark-blue dress, and her little blue velvet cap to match, and—little guessing how lovely she appeared in this dress, which simply transformed the pretty child into one of quite another rank of life—she ran quickly downstairs.
A young man of the name of Anderson, whom she knew very slightly, was passing by. He belonged to the Fire Brigade, and was one of the best and bravest firemen in London. He had a pair of great, broad shoulders, and a very kind face. It looked almost as refined as Connie's own.
Anderson gave her a glance, puzzled and wondering. He felt half-inclined to speak, but she hurried by him, and the next minute Agnes gripped her arm.
"My word, ain't you fine!" said that young lady. "You be a gel to be proud of! Won't yer do fine, jest! Now then, come along, and let's be quick."
Connie followed her companion. They went down several side-streets, and took several short cuts. They passed through the roughest and worst part of the purlieus at the back of Westminster. At last they entered a broader thoroughfare, and there Agnes stopped.
"Why, yer never be livin' here?" asked Connie.
"No, I bean't. You'll come to my 'ome afterwards. I want to take yer to see a lydy as maybe'll take a fancy to yer."
"Oh!" said Connie, feeling both excited and full of wonder.
The girls entered a side passage, and presently Connie, to her astonishment, found herself going upwards—up and up and up—in a lift. The lift went up as far as it would go. The girls got out. Agnes went first, and Connie followed. They walked down the passage, and Agnes gave a very neat double knock on the door, which looked like an ordinary front door to a house.
The door was opened by a woman rather loudly dressed, but with a handsome face.
"How do you do, Mrs. Warren?" said Agnes. "I ha' brought the young lydy I spoke to yer about. Shall us both come in?"
"Oh, yes, certainly," said Mrs. Warren.
She stood aside, and Connie, still following her companion, found herself at the other side of the neat door. The place inside was bright with electric light, and the stout, showily dressed lady, going first, conducted the girls into a room which Agnes afterwards spoke of as the dining-room. The lady sat down in a very comfortable arm-chair, crossed her legs, and desired Connie to come forward and show herself.
"Take off yer 'at," she said.
Connie did so.
"You're rather pretty."
Connie was silent.
"I want," said the stout woman, "a pretty gel, something like you, to come and sit with me from ten to two o'clock hevery day. Yer dooties'll be quite light, and I'll give yer lots o' pretty clothes and good wages."
"But what'll I have to do?" asked Connie.
"Jest to sit with me an' keep me company; I'm lonesome here all by myself."
Connie looked puzzled.
"You ask wot wages yer'll get," said Agnes, poking Connie on the arm. Connie's blue eyes looked up. The showy lady was gazing at her very intently.
"I'll give yer five shillin's a week," she said, "and yer keep, and some carst-off clothes—my own—now and again; and ef that bean't a bargain, I don't know wot be."
Connie was silent.
"You 'ad best close with it," said Agnes. "It's a charnce once in a 'undred. Yer'll be very 'appy with Mrs. Warren—her's a real lydy."
"Yes, that I be," said Mrs. Warren. "I come of a very hold family. My ancestors come hover with William the Conqueror."
Connie did not seem impressed by this fact.
"Will yer come or will yer not?" said Mrs. Warren. "I'll take yer jaunts, too—I forgot to mention that. Often on a fine Saturday, you an' me—we'll go to the country together. You don't know 'ow fine that 'ull be. We'll go to the country and we'll 'ave a spree. Did yer never see the country?"
"No," said Connie, in a slow voice, "but I ha' dreamt of it."
"She's the sort, ma'am," interrupted Agnes, "wot dreams the queerest things. She's hall for poetry and flowers and sech like. She's not matter-o'-fack like me."
"Jest the sort I want," said Mrs. Warren. "I—I loves poetry. You shall read it aloud to me, my gel—or, better still, I'll read it to you. An' as to flowers—why, yer shall pluck 'em yer own self, an' yer'll see 'em a-blowin' an' a-growin', yer own self. We'll go to the country next Saturday. There, now—ain't that fine?"
Connie looked puzzled. There certainly was a great attraction at the thought of going into the country. She hated the machine-work. But, all the same, somehow or other she did not like Mrs. Warren.
"I'll think o' it and let yer know," she said.
But when she uttered these words the stately dressed and over-fine lady changed her manner.
"There's no thinking now," she said. "You're 'ere, and yer'll stay. You go out arter you ha' been at my house? You refuse my goodness? Not a bit o' it! Yer'll stay."
"Oh, yes, Connie," said Agnes in a soothing tone.
"But I don't want to stay," said Connie, now thoroughly frightened. "I want to go—and to go at once. Let me go, ma'am; I—I don't like yer!"
Poor Connie made a rush for the door, but Agnes flew after her and clasped her round the waist.
"Yer be a silly!" she said. "Yer jest stay with her for one week."
"But I—I must go and tell father," said poor Connie.
"You needn't—I'll go an' tell him. Don't yer get into such a fright. Don't, for goodness' sake! Why, think of five shillin's a week, and jaunts into the country, and beautiful food, and poetry read aloud to yer, and hall the rest!"
"I has most select poetry here," said Mrs. Warren. "Did yer never yere of a man called Tennyson? An' did yer never read that most touching story of the consumptive gel called the 'May Queen'? 'Ef ye're wakin' call me hearly, call me hearly, mother dear.' I'll read yer that. It's the most beauteous thing."
"It sounds lovely," said Connie.
She was always arrested by the slightest thing which touched her keen fancy and rich imagination.
"And you 'ates the machines," said Agnes.
"Oh yes, I 'ates the machines," cried Connie. Then she added after a pause: "I'm 'ere, and I'll stay for one week. But I must go back first to get some o' my bits o' duds, and to tell father. You'd best let me go, ma'am; I won't be long away."
"But I can't do that," said Mrs. Warren; "it's a sight too late for a young, purty gel like you to be out. Agnes, now, can go and tell yer father, and bring wot clothes yer want to-morrow.—Agnes, yer'll do that, won't yer?"
"Yes—that I will."
"They'll never let me stay," said Connie, reflecting on this fact with some satisfaction.
"We won't ax him, my dear," said Mrs. Warren.
"I must go, really, now," said Agnes. "You're all right, Connie; you're made. You'll be a fine lydy from this day out. And I'll come and see yer.—W'en may I come, Mrs. Warren?"
"To-morrer evenin'," said Mrs. Warren. "You and Connie may have tea together to-morrer evenin', for I'm goin' out with some friends to the thayertre."
Poor Connie never quite knew how it happened, but somehow she found herself as wax in the strong hands of Mrs. Warren. Connie, it is true, gave a frightened cry when she heard Agnes shut the hall door behind her, and she felt positive that she had done exceedingly wrong. But Mrs. Warren really seemed kind, although Connie could not but wish that she was not quite so stout, and that her face was not of such an ugly brick red.
She gave the girl a nice supper, and talked to her all the time about the lovely life she would have there.
"Ef I takes to yer I'll maybe hadopt yer as my own daughter, my dear," she said. "You're a wery purty gel. And may I ax how old you are, my love?"
Connie answered that she was fourteen, and Mrs. Warren remarked that she was small for her age and looked younger. She showed the girl her own smart clothing, and tried the effect of her bit of fur round Connie's delicate throat.
"There," she said; "you can keep it. It's only rabbit; I can't afford no dearer. But yer'll look real foine in it when we goes out for our constooshionul to-morrow morning."
Connie was really touched and delighted with the present of the fur. She got very sleepy, too, after supper—more sleepy than she had ever felt in her life—and when Mrs. Warren suggested that her new little handmaid should retire early to bed, the girl was only too glad to obey.
Connie slept without dreams that night, and in the morning awoke with a start. What was the matter? Was she late? It was dreadful to be late at the doors of that cruel factory. Those who were late were docked of their pay.
Peter Harris was always very angry when his daughter did not bring in her full earnings on Saturday night. Connie cried out, "Father, father!" and then sat up in bed and pushed her golden hair back from her little face. What was the matter? Where was she? Why, what a pretty room! There was scarcely any light yet, and she could not see the different articles of furniture very distinctly, but it certainly seemed to her that she was in a most elegant apartment. Her room at home was—oh, so bare! just a very poor trundle-bed, and a little deal chest of drawers with a tiny looking-glass on top, and one broken chair to stand by her bedside. This was all.
But her present room had a carpet on the floor, and there were pictures hanging on the walls, and there were curtains to the windows, and the little bed on which she lay was covered with a gay counterpane—soft—almost as soft as silk.
Where could she be? It took her almost a minute to get back the memory of last night. Then she shuddered with the most curious feeling of mingled ecstasy and pain. She was not going to the factory to-day. She was not going to work at that horrid sewing-machine. She was not to meet Sue. She was not to be choked by the horrid air. She, Connie, had got a new situation, and Mrs. Warren was a very nice woman, although she was so fat and her dress was so loud that even Connie's untrained taste could not approve of it.
Just then a voice called to her:
"Get up, my dear; I'll have a cosy breakfast ready for yer by the time yer've put yourself tidily into yer clothes."
"Yes," thought Connie to herself, "I've done well to come. Agnes is right. I wonder what she'll say when she comes to tea this evening. I wonder if she met father. I do 'ope as father won't find me. I'd real like to stay on here for a bit; it's much, much nicer than the cruel sort of life I 'ave to home."
Connie dressed by the light which was now coming in more strongly through the window. Mrs. Warren pushed a can of hot water inside the door, and the girl washed with a strange, unwonted sense of luxury. She had no dress but the dark-blue, and she was therefore forced to put it on.
When she had completed her toilet she entered the sitting-room. Mrs. Warren, in her morning deshabille, looked a more unpleasing object than ever. Her hair was in tight curl-papers, and she wore a very loose and very dirty dressing-gown, which was made of a sort of pattern chintz, and gave her the effect of being a huge pyramid of coarse, faded flowers.
There was coffee, however, which smelled very good, on the hearth, and there was some toast and bacon, and some bread, butter, and jam. Connie and Mrs. Warren made a good meal, and then Mrs. Warren began to talk of the day's programme.
"I have a lot of shopping to do this morning," she said, "and we'll go out not later than ten o'clock sharp. It's wonderful wot a lot o' things I has to buy. There's sales on now, too, and we'll go to some of 'em. Maybe I'll get yer a bit o' ribbon—you're fond o' blue ribbon, I take it. Well, maybe I'll get it for yer—there's no saying. Anyhow, we'll walk down the streets, and wot shops we don't go into we'll press our noses against the panes o' glass and stare in. Now then, my dear, yer don't s'pose that I'll allow you to come out walking with the likes o' me with yer 'air down like that."
"Why, 'ow is it to be done?" said Connie. "I take it that it's beautiful; I ha' done it more tidy than ever."
"But I don't want it tidy. Now then, you set down yere close to the fire, so that you can toast yer toes, and I'll see to yer 'air."
Connie was forced to obey; more and more was she wax in the hands of her new employer. Mrs. Warren quickly took the hair-pins out of Connie's thick plait. She let it fall down to her waist, and then she unplaited it and brushed out the shining waves of lovely hair, and then said, with a smile of satisfaction:
"Now, I guess there won't be anybody prettier than you to walk abroad to-day."
"But I can't," said Connie—"I don't ever wear my 'air like that; it's only young lydies as does that."
"Well, ain't you a lydy, and ain't I a lydy? You're going out with one, and yer'll wear yer 'air as I please."
Connie shivered; but presently the little dark-blue cap was placed over the masses of golden hair, the gray fur was fastened round the slender throat, and Connie marched out with Mrs. Warren.
Mrs. Warren's own dress was in all respects the reverse of her pretty young companion's. It consisted of a very voluminous silk cloak, which was lined with fur, and which gave the already stout woman a most portly appearance. On her head she wore a bonnet covered with artificial flowers, and she enveloped her hands in an enormous muff.
"Now, off we go," said Mrs. Warren. "You'll enjoy yerself, my purty."
It is quite true that Connie did—at least, at first. This was the time of day when, with the exception of Sundays, she was always buried from view in the ugly warehouse. She was unaccustomed to the morning sunshine, and she was certainly unaccustomed to the handsome streets where Mrs. Warren conducted her.
They walked on, and soon found themselves in crowded thoroughfares. At last they stopped before the doors of a great shop, into which crowds of people were going.
"Oh, what a pretty girl!" said Connie to her companion.
A young girl, very like Connie herself—so like as to make the resemblance almost extraordinary—was entering the shop, accompanied by an old gentleman who was supporting himself by the aid of a gold-headed stick. The girl also had golden hair. She was dressed in dark blue, and had gray fur round her neck. But above the fur there peeped out a little pale-blue handkerchief made of very soft silk.
"That's purty," whispered Mrs. Warren to Connie. "Yer'd like a 'andkercher like that—yer shall 'ave one. Get on in front o' me; you're slimmer nor me; I want to push into the shop."
Connie obeyed. As she passed the fair young girl, the girl seemed to notice the extraordinary likeness between them, for she turned and looked at Connie and smiled. She also said something to her companion, who also stared at the girl. But stout Mrs. Warren poked Connie from behind, and she had to push forward, and presently found herself in the shop.
There it seemed to her that Mrs. Warren did very little buying. It is true she stopped at several counters, always choosing those which were most surrounded by customers; it is true she pulled things about, poking at the goods offered for sale, and making complaints about them, but always keeping Connie well to the fore.
A delicate color had sprung into the girl's cheeks, and almost every one turned to look at her. The shopmen turned; the shopgirls gazed; the customers forgot what they wanted in their amazement at Connie's beauty. Her hair, in especial, was the subject of universal admiration—its thickness, its length, its marvelous color. The girl herself was quite unconscious of the admiration which her appearance produced, but Mrs. Warren knew well what a valuable acquisition she had made in little Connie.
When they left the shop she seemed to be in high good-humor. But, lo and behold! a change had taken place in the outside world. The sun, so bright and glorious, had hidden himself behind a murky yellow fog, which was coming up each moment thicker and thicker from the river.
"Oh dear!" said Mrs. Warren.
"Oh dear!" cried Connie too. "We won't get lost, will us, ma'am?"
"Lost?" cried Mrs. Warren, with a sniff. "Now, I call this fog the most beautiful fortunation thing that could have 'appened. We'll have a real jolly morning now, Connie. You come along o' me. There, child—walk a bit in front. Why, ye're a real, real beauty. I feel sort of ashamed to be walkin' with yer. Let folks think that you're out with yer nurse, my pretty. Yes, let 'em think that, and that she's screening yer from misfortun' wid her own ample person."
Thus Connie walked for several hours that day. In and out of crowded thoroughfares the two perambulated. Into shops they went, and out again they came. Everywhere Connie went first, and Mrs. Warren followed very close behind.
At last the good lady said that she had done her morning's shopping. Connie could not well recall what she had bought, and the pair trudged soberly home.
When they got there Mrs. Warren went straight to her own bedroom, and Connie sat down by the fire, feeling quite tired with so much exercise. Presently Mrs. Warren came out again. She had changed her dress, and had put on an ample satin gown of black with broad yellow stripes. She was in high good-humor, and going up to Connie, gave her a resounding smack on the cheek.
"Now," she said, "yer won't think 'ard of poor Mammy Warren. See wot I've gone an' got an' bought for yer."
Connie turned quickly. A soft little blue handkerchief, delicately folded in tissue-paper, was laid on the table by the girl.
"Why—why—that ain't for me!" said Connie.
"Yes, but it be! Why shouldn't it be for you? I saw yer lookin' at that purty young lydy who was as like yer as two peas. I watched 'ow yer stared at the blue 'andkercher, and 'ow yer sort o' longed for it."
"But indeed—indeed I didn't."
"Anyhow, here's another, and yer can have it, and wear it peeping out among yer fur. I take it that yer blue 'andkercher'll take the cake."
"Then you've bought it for me?" said Connie.
"Yus—didn't I zay so?"
"But I never seen yer do it," said Connie.
"Seen me do it?" said Mrs. Warren, her eyes flashing with anger. "You was too much taken up with yer own conceits, my gel—hevery one staring at yer, 'cos poor old Mammy Warren 'ad made yer so beautiful. But though you was full to the brim o' yourself, I warn't so selfish; I were thinkin' o' you—and yere's yer 'andkercher."
Connie took up the handkerchief slowly. Strange as it may seem, it gave her no pleasure. She said, "Thank you, Mrs. Warren," in a subdued voice, and took it into her little bedroom.
Connie felt that she did not particularly want to wear the handkerchief. She did not know why, but a trouble, the first of the many troubles she was to undergo in the terrible society of Mrs. Warren, came over her. She went back again and sat down by the fire. During the greater part of the afternoon the stout woman slept. Connie watched her furtively. A strong desire to get up and run away seized her. Could she not get out of that house and go back to Sue and Giles? How happy she would feel in Giles's bare little room! How she would enjoy talking with the child! With what wonder they would both listen to Big Ben as he spoke in that voice of his the number of the hours! Giles would make up fairy-tales for Connie to listen to. How Connie did love the "wonnerful" things he said about the big "Woice"! One day it was cheerful, another day sad, another day very encouraging, another day full of that noble influence which the child himself so largely exercised. At all times it was an angel voice, speaking to mankind from high above this sordid world.
It helped Giles, and it helped Connie too. She sat by the fire in this well-furnished room and looked anxiously towards the door. Once she got up on tiptoe. She had almost reached the door, but had not quite done so, when Mrs. Warren turned, gave a loud snore, and opened her eyes. She did not speak when she saw Connie, but her eyes seemed to say briefly, "Well, don't you go any farther"; and Connie turned back into her small bedroom.
Sharp at four o'clock Mrs. Warren started up.
"Now then," she said, "I'm goin' to get the tea ready."
"Can I help you, ma'am?" asked Connie. "Shall I make you some toast, ma'am?"
"Toast?" cried Mrs. Warren. "Toast? Do you think I'd allow yer to spile yer purty face with the fire beatin' on it? Not a bit o' it! You set down there—it's a foine lydy you be, and I ha' to take care of yer."
"But why should yer do that, ma'am? I ain't put into the world to do naught. I ha' always worked 'ard—father wanted me to."
"Eh?" said Mrs. Warren. "But I'm yer father and mother both now, and I don't want yer to."
"Don't yer?" said Connie.
She sank down and folded her hands in her lap.
"I must do summut to whiten them 'ands o' yours," said Mrs. Warren; "and I'm goin' to get yer real purty stockings an' boots to wear. You must look the real lydy—a real lydy wears neat boots and good gloves."
"But I ain't a lydy," said Connie; "an' wots more," she added, "I don't want to be."
"You be a lydy," said Mrs. Warren; "the Halmighty made yer into one."
"I don't talk like one," said Connie.
"No; but then, yer needn't speak. Oh lor'! I suppose that's Agnes a-poundin' at the door. Oh, stand back, child, and I'll go to her."
Mrs. Warren opened the door, and Agnes stepped in.
"I ha' took French leave," she said. "I dunno wot they'll say at the factory, but yere I be. You promised, you know, Mrs. Warren, ma'am, as I shouldn't 'ave naught to do with factory life, niver no more."
"You needn't," said Mrs. Warren. "I ha' a deal o' work for yer to get through; but come along into my bedroom and we'll talk over things."
Mrs. Warren and Agnes disappeared into the bedroom of the former, Mrs. Warren having first taken the precaution to lock the sitting-room door and put the key into her pocket. Poor Connie felt more than ever that she was a prisoner. More than ever did she long for the old life which she had lived. Notwithstanding her father's drinking bouts, notwithstanding his cruelty and neglect, the free life, the above-board life—even the dull, dull factory life—were all as heaven compared to this terrible, mysterious existence in Mrs. Warren's comfortable rooms.
Mrs. Warren and Agnes talked together for quite three quarters of an hour. When they came out of the bedroom, Mrs. Warren was wearing a tight-fitting cloth jacket, which made her look more enormous even than the cloak had done. She had a small black bonnet on her head, over which she had drawn a spotted net veil. Her hands were encased in decent black gloves, her skirt was short, and her boots tidy. She carried in her hand a fair-sized brown leather bag; and telling Connie that she was "goin' out," and would be back when she saw her and not before, left the two girls alone in the little sitting-room.
After she had shut the door behind her, Agnes went over to it, and possessing herself of the key, slipped it into her pocket. Then she stared hard at Connie.
"Well," she said, "an' 'ow do yer like it?"
"I don't like it at all," answered Connie, "I want to go—I will go. I'd rayther a sight be back in the factory. Mrs. Warren—she frightens me."
"You be a silly," said Agnes. "You talk like that 'cos you knows no better. Why, 'ere you are as cosy and well tended as gel could be. Look at this room. Think on the soft chair you're sittin' upon; think on the meals; think on yer bedroom; think on the beautiful walk you 'ad this morning. My word! you be a silly! No work to do, and nothing whatever to trouble yer, except to act the lydy. My word! ef you're discontent, the world'll come to an end. Wish I were in your shoes—that I do."
"Well, Agnes, get into them," said Connie. "I'm sure you're more than welcome. I'm jest—jest pinin' for wot you thinks naught on. I want to see Giles and Sue and—and—father. You git into my shoes—you like it—I don't like it."
Agnes burst into a loud laugh.
"My word!" she said, "you're be a gel and a 'arf. Wouldn't I jest jump at gettin' into your shoes if I could? But there! yer shoes don't fit me, and that's the truth."
"Don't fit yer, don't they?" exclaimed Connie. "Wot do yer mean by that?"
"Too small," said Agnes, sticking out her ugly foot in its broken boot—"too genteel—too neat. No one could make a lydy o' me. Look at my 'ands." She spread out her coarse, stumpy fingers. "Look at my face. Why, yere's a glass; let's stand side by side, an' then let's compare. Big face; no nose to speak of; upper lip two inches long; mouth—slit from ear to ear; freckles; eyes what the boys call pig's eyes; 'air rough and coarse; figure stumpy. Now look at you. Face fair as a lily; nose straight and small; mouth like a rosebud; eyes blue as the sky. No, Connie, it can't be done; what with that face o' yourn, and that gold 'air o' yourn, you're a beauty hout and hout. Yer face is yer fortoon', my purty maid."
"My face ain't my fortune."
"Things don't fit, Connie. You ha' got to stay yere—and be a fine lydy. That's the way you works for yer livin'—I ha' to work in a different sort."
"What sort? Oh, do tel me!"
"No; that's my secret. But I've spoke out plain with the old woman, and I'm comin' yere Saturday night—not to stay, bless yer! no, but to do hodd jobs for her; for one thing, to look arter you when she's out. I 'spect she'll get Ronald back now you ha' come."
"Ronald!" cried Connie. "Who's he?"
"Never you mind; you'll know when yer see of 'im."
"Then I'm a prisoner," said Connie—"that's what it means."
"Well, well! take it like that ef yer like. Ain't it natural that Mrs. Warren should want yer to stay now she ha' got yer? When yer stays willin'-like, as yer will all too soon, then yer'll 'ave yer liberty. Hin an' out then yer may go as yer pleases; there'll be naught to interfere. Yer'll jest do yer dooty then, and yer dooty'll be to please old Mammy Warren."
"Has my father missed me?" asked Connie, who saw by this time that she could not possibly cope with Agnes; if ever she was to effect her escape from this horrible place, it must be by guile.
"'Ow is father?" she asked. "'Ave he missed me yet?"
"Know nothing 'bout him. Don't think he have, for the boys, Dick and Hal, was 'ome when I come back. They 'ad no news for me at all."
"You saw Sue to-day?"
"Yus, I saw her, an' I kep' well away from her."
"Agnes," said Connie in a very pleading voice, "ef I must stay 'ere—an' I don't know wot I ha' done to be treated like this—will yer take a message from me to little Giles?"
"Wot sort?" asked Agnes.
"Tell 'im straight from me that I can't come to see 'im for a few days, an' ax him to pray for me; an' tell him that I 'ears the Woice same as he 'ears the Woice, and tell 'im as it real comforts me. Wull yer do that, Agnes—wull yer, now?"
"Maybe," said Agnes; then after a pause she added, "Or maybe I won't. I 'ates yer Methody sort o' weak-minded folks. That's the worst o' you, Connie; you're real weak-minded, for all ye're so purty, what wid yer 'prays' an' yer Woice, indeed!"
"Hark! it's sounding now," said Connie.
She raised her little delicate hand, and turned her head to listen. The splendid notes filled the air. Connie murmured something under her breath.
"I know wot Giles 'ud say 'bout the Woice to-night," she murmured.
But Agnes burst into a loud laugh.
"My word!" she said. "You 're talkin' o' Big Ben. Well, you be a caution."
"He that shall endure," whispered Connie; and then a curious hidden sunshine seemed to come out and radiate her small face. She folded her hands. The impatience faded from her eyes. She sat still and quiet.
"Wot hever's the matter with yer?" asked Agnes.
"Naught as yer can understand, Aggie."
"Let's get tea," said Agnes. She started up and made vigorous preparations. Soon the tea was served and placed upon the little centre-table. It was an excellent tea, with shrimps and bread-and-butter, and cake and jam. Agnes ate enormously, but Connie was not as hungry as usual.
"Prime, I call it!" said Agnes. "My word! to think of gettin' all this and not workin' a bit for it! You be in luck, Connie Harris—you be in luck."
When the meal was over, and Agnes had washed up and made the place tidy, she announced her intention of going to sleep.
"I'm dead-tired," she said, "and swallerin' sech a fillin' meal have made me drowsy. But I ha' the key in my pocket, so don't you be trying that little gime o'running away."
Agnes slept, and snored in her sleep, and Connie restlessly walked to the window and looked out. When Big Ben sounded again her eyes filled with tears. She had never spent such a long and dismal evening in her life.
Mammy Warren did not return home until between ten and eleven o'clock. Immediately on her arrival, Agnes took her departure. Mammy Warren then locked the door, and having provided herself with a stiff glass of whisky-and-water, desired Connie to hurry off to bed.
"Yer'll be losing yer purty sleep," she said, "and then where'll yer be?"
The next day Connie again walked abroad with Mrs. Warren. Once more she was dressed in the dark-blue costume, with her golden hair hanging in a great fleece down her back. But when she made her appearance without the little blue handkerchief, Mrs. Warren sent her back for it.
"I know wot I'm about," she said. "The blue in the 'andkercher'll add to the blue in yer eyes. Pop it on, gel, and be quick."
"I don't—want to," she said.
"And w'y don't yer?"
The woman's voice was very fierce.
"I'm somehow sort o' feared."
"Take that for bein' sort o' feared," said Mrs. Warren; and she hit the child so fierce a blow on the arm that Connie cried out from the pain.
Poor Connie was a very timorous creature, however, and the effect of the blow was to make her meek and subservient. The blue handkerchief was tied on and arranged to Mrs. Warren's satisfaction, and they both went out into the open air.
They went by 'bus to quite a different part of the town on this occasion, and Mrs. Warren again assured her little companion that she had a great deal of shopping to get through.
"That is why I wear this cloak," she said; "I ha' bags fastened inside to hold the things as I buy."
Once again they got into a crowd, and once again Connie was desired to walk on a little way in front, and once again people turned to look at the slim, fair child with her beautiful face and lovely hair. Once more they entered several shops, and invariably chose the most crowded parts—so crowded that Mrs. Warren whispered to Connie:
"We must wait till our turn, honey. We must ha' patience, dearie."
They had patience. Mrs. Warren did absolutely purchase half-a-dozen very coarse pocket-handkerchiefs, keeping Connie close to her all the time. One of these she straightway presented to the girl, saying in a loud voice as she did so to the attendant:
"I'm out with the purty dear to give her exercise. I am her nurse. She mustn't walk too far. No, thank you, mum, I'll carry the 'andkerchers 'ome myself; I won't trouble yer to send them to Portland Mansions.—Now, come along, my dear; we mustn't waste our time in this 'ot shop. We must be hout, taking of our exercise."
They walked a very, very long way that morning, and Mrs. Warren, contrary to her yesterday's plan, did now and then expend a few pence. Whenever she did so she drew the shop people's attention to Connie, speaking of her as her charge, and a "dear, delicate young lydy," and begging of the people to be quick, as "'ot air" was so bad for the dear child; and invariably she refused to allow a parcel to be sent to Portland Mansions, saying that she preferred to carry it. At last, however, she seemed to think that Connie had had sufficient exercise, and they went home from the corner of Tottenham Court Road on the top of a 'bus.
On their way Connie turned innocently to her companion and said:
"Why ever did yer say as we lived in Portland Mansions?" But a sharp pinch on the girl's arm silenced her, and she felt more nervous and frightened than ever.
The moment they got home, Mrs. Warren again returned to her bedroom, and came back neatly dressed in a black and yellow silk, with a keen appreciation of roast pork and apple sauce, which had been preparing in the oven all the morning. Connie too was hungry.
When the meal came to an end Mrs. Warren said:
"More like a lydy you grows each minute. But, my dear, I must thank yer nivver to open yer mouth when you're out, for yer ain't got the accent. Yer must niver do it until yer has acquired the rightful accent."
"Was that why yer pinched me so 'ard when I axed why yer spoke o' Portland Mansions?" asked Connie.
Mrs. Warren burst into a loud laugh.
"Course it were," she said. "Don't yer nivver do nothing o' that sort agin."
"But we don't live in Portland Mansions. Why did yer say so?" asked Connie.
"Ax no questions and yer'll be told no lies," was Mrs. Warren's response.
She accompanied this apparently innocent speech with a look out of her fierce black eyes which caused poor Connie's heart to sink into her shoes. After a minute Mrs. Warren said:
"To-morrer's Saturday; we'll go out a bit in the morning, and then we'll take train into the country. I promised yer a jaunt, and yer shall 'ave it. I'm thinking a lot o' yer, my dear, and 'ow I can best help such a beautiful young gel. Yer accent must be 'tended to, and the best way to manage that is for you to have a refoined sort o' companion. Ronald is that sort. We'll go and fetch 'im 'ome to-morrer."
"Whoever is Ronald?" asked Connie. "Do tell me, please," she added in an interested voice, "for Agnes spoke of him yesterday."
"You wait till yer see," said Mrs. Warren. She nodded good-humoredly.
The rest of the day passed very much like the day before. It was again intensely dull to poor Connie. She had nothing whatever to do but to feed and sit still. Again Mrs. Warren slept until tea-time. Then Agnes made her appearance, and Mrs. Warren went out in a tight-fitting coat, and with a leather bag in her hand. Agnes made tea and scolded Connie; and Connie grumbled and cried, and begged and begged to be given back her liberty.
Mrs. Warren returned a little later than the night before. Agnes went away; Mrs. Warren drank whisky-and-water, and Connie was sent to bed. Oh, it was a miserable night! And would her own people ever find her? Would Sue be satisfied that Connie was not quite lost? And would Father John look for her? Dear, kind, splendid Father John! What would she not give to hear his magnificent voice as he preached to the people once again? Would not her own father search heaven and earth to find his only child? He was so good to Connie when he was not drunk—so proud of her, too, so glad when she kissed him so anxious to do the best he could for her! Would he give her up for ever? "Oh dear, dear!" thought the poor child, "if it was not for the Woice I believe I'd go mad; but the Woice—it holds me up. I'm 'appy enough w'en I 'ears it. Oh, little Giles, thank yer for telling me o' the wonnerful Woice!"
A TRIP INTO THE COUNTRY.
Saturday dawned a very bright and beautiful day. Mrs. Warren got up early, and Connie also rose, feeling somehow or other that she was going to have a pleasanter time than she had yet enjoyed since her imprisonment. Oh yes, she was quite certain now that she was imprisoned; but for what object it was impossible for her even to guess.