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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesSue, A Little Heroine - Chapter 13. Peter Harris
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Sue, A Little Heroine - Chapter 13. Peter Harris Post by :J-Man Category :Long Stories Author :L. T. Meade Date :May 2012 Read :2825

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Sue, A Little Heroine - Chapter 13. Peter Harris

CHAPTER XIII. PETER HARRIS

While Connie was going through such strange adventures in Mammy Warren's attic room, her father, Giles, and Sue, and dear Father John were nearly distracted about her.

Peter Harris was a rough, fierce, unkempt individual. He was fond of drink. He was not at all easily impressed by good things; but, as has been said before, if he had one tender spot in his heart it was for Connie. When he drank he was dreadfully unkind to his child; but in his sober moments there was nothing he would not do for the pretty, motherless girl.

As day after day passed without his seeing her, he got nearly frantic with anxiety. At first he tried to make nothing of her disappearance, saying that the girl had doubtless gone to visit some friends; but when a few days went by and there were no tidings of her, and Sue assured him that she not only never appeared now at the great warehouse in Cheapside where they used to work together, but also that she had been seen last with Agnes Coppenger, and that Agnes Coppenger had also disappeared from her work at the sewing-machine, he began to fear that something bad had happened.

Father John was consulted, and Father John advised the necessity of at once acquainting the police. But although the police did their best, they could get no trace whatever either of Agnes or of Connie.

Thus the days passed, and Connie's friends were very unhappy about her. Her absence had a bad effect on Peter, who, from his state of grief and uneasiness, had taken more and more consolation out of the gin-palace which he was fond of frequenting. Every night now he came home tipsy, and the neighbors were afraid to go near. Soon he began to abuse Connie, to say unkind things about her, and to fly into a passion with any neighbor who mentioned her name.

Giles shed silent tears for his old playmate, and even the voice of Big Ben hardly comforted him, so much did he miss the genial companionship of pretty Connie. But now at last the girl herself was going home. She had no fear. She was full of a wild and yet terrible delight. How often she had longed for her father! Connie had a great deal of imagination, and during the dreadful time spent at Mother Warren's, and in especial since Ronald had come, she began to compare her father with Ronald's, and gradually but surely to forget the cruel and terrible scenes when that father was drunk, and to think of him only in his best moments when he kissed her and petted her and called her his dear little motherless girl.

Oh, he would be glad to see her now! He would rejoice in her company.

Connie quickly found the old house in Adam Street, and ran up the stairs. One or two people recognized her, and said, "Hullo, Con! you back?" but being too busy with their struggle for life, did not show any undue curiosity.

"Is my father in?" asked Connie of one.

The man said, "He be." And then he added, "Yer'd best be careful. He ain't, to say, in his pleasantest mood to-night."

Connie reached the well-known landing. She turned the handle of the door. It was locked. She heard some one moving within. Then a rough voice said:

"Get out o' that!"

"It's me, father!" called Connie back. "It's Connie!"

"Don't want yer--get away!" said the voice.

Connie knelt down and called through the keyhole:

"It's me--I've 'ad a dreadful time--let me in."

"Go 'way--don't want yer--get out o' this!"

"Oh father--father!" called Connie. She began to sob. After all her dreams, after all her longings, after all her cruel trials--to be treated like this, and by her father! It seemed to shake her very belief in fathers, even in the great Father of all.

"Please--please--I'm jest wanting yer awfu' bad!" she pleaded.

Her gentle and moving voice--that voice for which Peter Harris, when sober and in his right mind, so starved to hear again--now acted upon him in quite the opposite direction. He had not taken enough to make him stupid, only enough to rouse his worst passions. He strode across the room, flung the door wide, and lifting Connie from her knees, said to her:

"Listen. You left me without rhyme or reason--not even a word or a thought. I sorrowed for yer till I turned to 'ate yer! Now then, get out o' this. I don't want yer, niver no more. Go down them stairs, unless yer want me to push yer down. Go 'way--and be quick!"

There was a scowl on his angry face, a ferocious look in his eyes. Connie turned quite gently, and without any apparent anger went downstairs.

"Ah!" said a man in the street, "thought yer wouldn't stay long."

"He's wery bad," said Connie. She walked slowly, as though her heart were bleeding, down Adam Street until she came to the house where Father John Atkins lived.

It was a little house, much smaller than its neighbors. Father John's room was on the ground floor. She knocked at the door. There was no answer. She turned the handle: it yielded to her pressure. She went in, sank down on the nearest chair, and covered her face with both her hands.

She was trembling exceedingly. The shock of her father's treatment was far greater than she could well bear in her present weak and over-excited condition. She had gone through--oh, so much--so very much! That awful time with Mammy Warren; her anxiety with regard to little Ronald; and then that final, awful, never-to-be-forgotten day, that night which was surely like no other night that had ever dawned on the world--the noise of the gathering flames, the terrific roar they made through the old building; the shouts of the people down below; the heat, the smoke, the pain, the cruel, cruel fear; and then last but not least--the deliverance!

When that gallant fireman appeared, it seemed to both Connie and Ronald as though the gates of heaven had opened, and they had been taken straight away from the pains of hell into the glories of the blest. But all these things told on the nerves, and when Connie now had been turned away from her father's door, she was absolutely unfit for such treatment.

When she reached Father John's she was as weak and miserable a poor little girl as could found anywhere in London.

"My dear! my dear!" said the kind voice--the sort of voice that always thrilled the hearts of those who listened to him. A hand was laid on the weeping girl's shoulder. "Look up," said the voice again. Then there was a startled cry, an exclamation of the purest pleasure.

"Why Connie--my dear Connie--the good Lord has heard our prayers and has sent you back again!"

"Don't matter," said Connie, sobbing on, quite impervious to the kindness, quite unmoved by the sympathy. "There ain't no Father 'chart 'eaven," she continued. "I don't believe in 'Im no more. There ain't no Father, and no Jesus Christ. Ef there were, my own father wouldn't treat me so bitter cruel."

"Come, Connie," said the preacher, "you know quite well that you don't mean those dreadful words. Sit down now by the cosy fire; sit in my own little chair, and I'll talk to you, my child. Why, Connie, can't you guess that we've been praying for you?"

"Don't matter," whispered Connie again.

The preacher looked at her attentively. He put his kind hand for a minute on her forehead, and then, with that marvellous knowledge which he possessed of the human heart and the human needs, he said nothing for the time being. Connie was not fit to argue, and he knew she was worn-out. He got her to sit in the old arm-chair, and to lay her golden head against a soft cushion, and then he prepared coffee--strong coffee--both for her and himself.

It was late, and he was deadly tired. He had been up all the night before. It was his custom often to spend his nights in this fashion; for, as he was fond of expressing it, the Divine Master seemed to have more work for him to do at night than in the daytime.

"There are plenty of others to help in the daytime," thought Father John, "but in the darkness the sin and the shame are past talking about. If I can lift a burden from one heart, and help one poor suffering soul, surely that is the best night's rest I can attain to."

Last night he had put a drunken woman to bed. He had found her on a doorstep, and had managed, notwithstanding his small stature and slender frame, to drag her upstairs. There her terrified children met him. He managed to get them into a calm state of mind, and then induced them to help him for all they were worth. The great, bulky woman was undressed and put into bed. She slept, and snored loudly, and the children crowded round. He made them also go to bed, and went away, promising to call in the morning.

He did so. The woman was awake, conscious, and bitterly ashamed. He spoke to her as he alone knew how, and, before he left, induced her to go with him to take the pledge. He then gave her a little money out of his slender earnings to get a meal for the children, and spent the rest of the day trying to get fresh employment for her. She had been thrown out of work by her misdemeanors; but Father John was a power, and more than one lady promised to try Mrs. Simpkins once again. The little preacher was, therefore, more tired than his wont. He bent over Connie. She drank her coffee, and, soothed by his presence, became calmer herself.

"Now then," he said, "you will tell me everything. Why did you run away?"

"'Cos I were tired o' machine-work. But, oh, Father John! I niver, niver meant to stay aw'y. I jest thought as I were to get a nice new situation; I niver guessed as it 'ud be a prison." Connie then told her story, with many gaps and pauses.

"You see," said Father John when she had finished, "that when you took the management of your own life into your own hands you did a very dangerous thing. God was guiding you, and you thought you could do without Him. You have been punished."

"Yus," said Connie. "I'll niver be the same again."

"I hope, indeed, that you will not be the same. You have gone through marvellous adventures, and but for God Himself you would not now be in the world. It is not only your pain and misery that you have to consider, but you have also to think of the pain and misery you inflicted on others."

"No," said Connie defiantly, "that I won't do. I thought father 'ud care, but he turned me from 'ome."

"He did care, Connie. I never knew any one so distracted. He cared so terribly, and was so sore about you, that he took to drink to drown his pain. In the morning, when he is sober, you will see what a welcome he will give you."

"No," said Connie, shaking her head.

"But I say he will. He will help you, and he will be a father to you. I will take you to him myself in the morning."

Connie did not say anything more. When she had finished her coffee, the preacher suggested that he should take her to Sue and Giles. The girl looked at him wildly. In telling her story, she had never mentioned the name of the lady who had taken her in, nor the name of the brave fireman who had befriended her. But now Father John boldly asked her for these particulars. Her little face flushed and she looked up defiantly.

"I dunnut want to give 'em," she said.

"But I ask you for them, Connie," said the preacher.

Connie could no more withstand Father John's authoritative tone than she could fly. After a minute's pause she did tell what she knew, and Father John wrote Mrs. Anderson's address down in his note-book.

"Now then, Connie," he said, rising, "you're better. Sue and Giles will be so glad to see you once more! Come, dear; let me take you to them."

Connie stood up. There was a curious, wild light in her eyes; but she avoided looking at the street preacher, and he did not observe it. Had he done so he would have been more careful.

The two went out into the street together. It was now getting really late. The distance between the preacher's room and the humble lodgings where Sue and Giles lived was no great way, but to reach the home of the little Giles they had to pass some very ill-favored courts. At one of these Connie suddenly saw a face she knew. She started, trembling, and would have fled on had not a hand been raised to warning lips. The preacher at that instant was stopped by a man who wanted to ask him a question with regard to a child of his whom Father John was trying to find employment for.

Before he knew what had happened, Connie's hand was dragged from his. The girl uttered a slight cry, and the next minute was enveloped in the darkness of one of the worst courts in the whole of London.

"Quiet--quiet!" said a voice. "Don't you let out one sound or you'll niver speak no more. It's me--Agnes. I won't do yer no 'arm ef ye're quiet. Come along with me now."

Connie went, for she could not do anything else. Her feelings were absolutely confused. She did not know at that fearful moment whether she was glad or sorry to be back with Agnes Coppenger again. She only felt a sense of relief at having slipped away from Father John, and at having, as she thought, parted from her own cruel father.

"Oh Agnes!" she whispered, "hide me; and don't--don't take me back to Mammy Warren!"

"Bless yer!" said Agnes, "she's coped by the perlice. Mammy Warren's awaiting her trial in the 'Ouse of Detention; yer won't be worried by her no more."

"W'ere are yer taking me, then, Agnes?"

"'Ome--to my 'ouse, my dear."

"Yer'll promise to let me go in the morning?"

"Safe an' sure I will--that is, ef yer want to go."

Agnes was now walking so fast that Connie had the utmost difficulty in keeping up with her. She seemed all the time to be dodging, getting into shadows, avoiding lights, turning rapidly round corners, making the most marvellous short cuts, until at last--at last--she reached a very tall house, much taller than the one where Mammy Warren had lived. She made a peculiar whistle when she got there. The door was opened by a boy of about Connie's age.

"'Ere we be, Freckles," said Agnes; "and I ha' got the beautiful and saintly Connie back again."

"Hurrah for saintly Connie!" cried Freckles.

The two girls were dragged in by a pair of strong hands, and Connie found herself in utter darkness, descending some slippery stairs--into what depths she had not the slightest idea.

"These are the cellars," said Agnes when at last a door was flung open, and she found herself in a very poorly lit apartment with scarcely any furniture. "You was in hattics before," continued Agnes; "now ye're in the cellars. Yer didn't greatly take to kind Mammy Warren, but perhaps yer'll like Simeon Stylites better. He's a rare good man is Simeon--wery pious too. He sets afore him a saint o' the olden days, an' tries to live accordin'. He ain't in yet, so yer can set down and take things heasy."

Connie sat down.

"I'm that frightened!" she said. Agnes began to laugh.

"Sakes!" she exclaimed, "you ha' no cause. Simeon's a real feeling man, and he's allers kind to pore gels, more particular ef they 'appen to be purty."

Agnes now proceeded to light a fire in a huge, old-fashioned grate. There seemed to be abundance of coal. She built the fire up high, and when it roared up the chimney she desired Connie to draw near.

"You ain't got over yer fright yet," she began.

"Don't talk of it," said Connie.

"I guess as I won't--yer do look piquey. 'Ow's the other kid?"

"I dunno."

Agnes laughed and winked. After a minute she said,

"Yer needn't tell me. 'E's with Mrs. Anderson, mother o' the fireman. The fireman--'e's a real 'andsome man--I can tike to that sort myself. The kid's wery bad, he is. Wull, ef he dies it'll be a pity, for he 'ave the makings in 'im of a first-rate perfessional."

"Perfessional?" said Connie.

"Yus--ef he lives 'e'll be one. Simeon Stylites 'ull see to that. You'll be a perfessional, too. There's no use in these 'ere days bein' anything of an amattur; yer must be a perfessional or yer can't earn yer bread."

"I don't understand," said Connie.

"Sakes! you be stupid. It's good to open yer heyes now. Wot do yer think Mammy Warren wanted yer for?"

"I never could tell, only Mrs. Anderson said----"

"Yus--tell us wot she said. She's a torf--let's get _'er idees on the subjeck."

"I won't tell yer," said Connie.

"Oh--_that's yer little gime! Wull--I don't keer--I'll tell yer from my p'int o' view. Mammy Warren wanted yer--not for love--don't think no sech thing--but jest 'cos she could make you a sort o' decoy-duck. W'ile she was pickin' up many a good harvest, folks was a-starin' at you; an' w'en the little boy were there too, w'y, they stared all the more. She 'ad the boy first, and he were a fine draw. But he tuk ill, an' then she had to get some sort, an' I told her 'bout you, and 'ow purty you were, an' wot golden 'air you 'ad. 'Her golden 'air was 'angin' down her back,' I sung to her, an' she were tuk with the picter. Then I got yer for her--you knows 'ow. Wull, pore Mammy Warren! she's in quad for the present. But she'll come out agin none the worse; bless yer! they feeds 'em fine in quad now. Many a one as I know goes in reg'lar for the cold weather. You see, we'n yer gets yer lodgin' an' yer food at Government expense, it don't cost yer nothing, an' yer come out none the worse. That's wot Mammy Warren 'ull do. But Simeon Stylites-'e's a man 'oo prides himself on niver 'avin' been tuk yet. He'll teach yer 'ow to be a perfessional. Now then--yer ain't frightened, be yer?"

"No," said Connie. Once again she was the old Connie. She had got over her anguish of despair and grief about her father's conduct. She must get out of this, and the only chance was to let Agnes think that she didn't mind.

"Yer'll make a _beautiful perfessional!" said Agnes, looking at her with admiration now. "I could--I could grovel at yer feet--pore me, so plain as I ham an' hall, an' you so wery genteel. There now, 'oo's that a-knockin' at the door?"

Agnes went to the door. She opened it about an inch, and had a long colloquy with some one outside.

"All right, Freckles," she said, "you can go to bed."

She then came back to Connie.

"Simeon ain't returning afore to-morrer," she said. "We'll tike to our beds. Come along with me, Connie."

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