A Little Princess: Being the whole story of Sara Crewe now told for the first time
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“Oh, Sara,” she cried out, “I am glad you have come. Melchy would sniff about so. I tried to coax him to go back, but he wouldn’t for such a long time. I like him, you know; but it does frighten me when he sniffs right at me. Do you think he ever would jump?”
“No,” answered Sara.
Ermengarde crawled forward on the bed to look at her.
“You do look tired, Sara,” she said; “you are quite pale.”
“I am tired,” said Sara, dropping on to the lop-sided footstool. “Oh, there’s Melchisedec, poor thing. He’s come to ask for his supper.”
Melchisedec had come out of his hole as if he had been listening for her footstep. Sara was quite sure he knew it. He came forward with an affectionate, expectant expression as Sara put her hand in her pocket and turned it inside out, shaking her head.
“I’m very sorry,” she said. “I haven’t one crumb left. Go home, Melchisedec, and tell your wife there was nothing in my pocket. I’m afraid I forgot because the cook and Miss Minchin were so cross.”
Melchisedec seemed to understand. He shuffled resignedly, if not contentedly, back to his home.
“I did not expect to see you to-night, Ermie,” Sara said.
Ermengarde hugged herself in the red shawl.
“Miss Amelia has gone out to spend the night with her old aunt,” she explained. “No one else ever comes and looks into the bedrooms after we are in bed. I could stay here until morning if I wanted to.”
She pointed toward the table under the skylight. Sara had not looked toward it as she came in. A number of books were piled upon it. Ermengarde’s gesture was a dejected one.
“Papa has sent me some more books, Sara,” she said. “There they are.”
Sara looked round and got up at once. She ran to the table, and picking up the top volume, turned over its leaves quickly. For the moment she forgot her discomforts.
“Ah,” she cried out, “how beautiful! Carlyle’s ‘French Revolution.’ I have so wanted to read that!”
“I haven’t,” said Ermengarde. “And papa will be so cross if I don’t. He’ll expect me to know all about it when I go home for the holidays. What shall I do?”
Sara stopped turning over the leaves and looked at her with an excited flush on her cheeks.
“Look here,” she cried, “if you’ll lend me these books, I’ll read them – and tell you everything that’s in them afterward – and I’ll tell it so that you will remember it, too.”
“Oh, goodness!” exclaimed Ermengarde. “Do you think you can?”
“I know I can,” Sara answered. “The little ones always remember what I tell them.”
“Sara,” said Ermengarde, hope gleaming in her round face, “if you’ll do that, and make me remember, I’ll – I’ll give you anything.”
“I don’t want you to give me anything,” said Sara. “I want your books – I want them!” And her eyes grew big, and her chest heaved.
“Take them, then,” said Ermengarde. “I wish I wanted them – but I don’t.I’m not clever, and my father is, and he thinks I ought to be.”
Sara was opening one book after the other. “What are you going to tell your father?” she asked, a slight doubt dawning in her mind.
“Oh, he needn’t know,” answered Ermengarde. “He’ll think I’ve read them.”
Sara put down her book and shook her head slowly. “That’s almost like telling lies,” she said. “And lies – well, you see, they are not only wicked – they’re vulgar. Sometimes” – reflectively – “I’ve thought perhaps I might do something wicked, – I might suddenly fly into a rage and kill Miss Minchin, you know, when she was ill-treating me, – but I couldn’t be vulgar. Why can’t you tell your father I read them?”
“He wants me to read them,” said Ermengarde, a little discouraged by this unexpected turn of affairs.
“He wants you to know what is in them,” said Sara. “And if I can tell it to you in an easy way and make you remember it, I should think he would like that.”
“He’ll like it if I learn anything in any way,” said rueful Ermengarde. “You would if you were my father.”
“It’s not your fault that – ” began Sara. She pulled herself up and stopped rather suddenly. She had been going to say, “It’s not your fault that you are stupid.”
“That what?” Ermengarde asked.
“That you can’t learn things quickly,” amended Sara. “If you can’t, you can’t. If I can – why, I can; that’s all.”
She always felt very tender of Ermengarde, and tried not to let her feel too strongly the difference between being able to learn anything at once, and not being able to learn anything at all. As she looked at her plump face, one of her wise, old-fashioned thoughts came to her.
“Perhaps,” she said, “to be able to learn things quickly isn’t everything. To be kind is worth a great deal to other people. If Miss Minchin knew everything on earth and was like what she is now, she’d still be a detestable thing, and everybody would hate her. Lots of clever people have done harm and have been wicked. Look at Robespierre – ”
She stopped and examined Ermengarde’s countenance, which was beginning to look bewildered. “Don’t you remember?” she demanded. “I told you about him not long ago. I believe you’ve forgotten.”
“Well, I don’t remember all of it,” admitted Ermengarde.
“Well, you wait a minute,” said Sara, “and I’ll take off my wet things and wrap myself in the coverlet and tell you over again.”
She took off her hat and coat and hung them on a nail against the wall, and she changed her wet shoes for an old pair of slippers. Then she jumped on the bed, and drawing the coverlet about her shoulders, sat with her arms round her knees.
“Now, listen,” she said.
She plunged into the gory records of the French Revolution, and told such stories of it that Ermengarde’s eyes grew round with alarm and she held her breath. But though she was rather terrified, there was a delightful thrill in listening, and she was not likely to forget Robespierre again, or to have any doubts about the Princesse de Lamballe.
“You know they put her head on a pike and danced round it,” Sara explained. “And she had beautiful floating blonde hair; and when I think of her, I never see her head on her body, but always on a pike, with those furious people dancing and howling.”
It was agreed that Mr. St. John was to be told the plan they had made, and for the present the books were to be left in the attic.
“Now let’s tell each other things,” said Sara. “How are you getting on with your French lessons?”
“Ever so much better since the last time I came up here and you explained the conjugations. Miss Minchin could not understand why I did my exercises so well that first morning.”
Sara laughed a little and hugged her knees.
“She doesn’t understand why Lottie is doing her sums so well,” she said; “but it is because she creeps up here, too, and I help her.” She glanced round the room. “The attic would be rather nice – if it wasn’t so dreadful,” she said, laughing again. “It’s a good place to pretend in.”
The truth was that Ermengarde did not know anything of the sometimes almost unbearable side of life in the attic, and she had not a sufficiently vivid imagination to depict it for herself. On the rare occasions that she could reach Sara’s room she only saw that side of it which was made exciting by things which were “pretended” and stories which were told. Her visits partook of the character of adventures; and though sometimes Sara looked rather pale, and it was not to be denied that she had grown very thin, her proud little spirit would not admit of complaints. She had never confessed that at times she was almost ravenous with hunger, as she was to-night. She was growing rapidly, and her constant walking and running about would have given her a keen appetite even if she had had abundant and regular meals of a much more nourishing nature than the unappetizing, inferior food snatched at such odd times as suited the kitchen convenience. She was growing used to a certain gnawing feeling in her young stomach.
“I suppose soldiers feel like this when they are on a long and weary march,” she often said to herself. She liked the sound of the phrase, “long and weary march.” It made her feel rather like a soldier. She had also a quaint sense of being a hostess in the attic.
“If I lived in a castle,” she argued, “and Ermengarde was the lady of another castle, and came to see me, with knights and squires and vassals riding with her, and pennons flying; when I heard the clarions sounding outside the drawbridge I should go down to receive her, and I should spread feasts in the banquet-hall and call in minstrels to sing and play and relate romances. When she comes into the attic I can’t spread feasts, but I can tell stories, and not let her know disagreeable things. I dare say poor chatelaines had to do that in times of famine, when their lands had been pillaged.” She was a proud, brave little chatelaine, and dispensed generously the one hospitality she could offer – the dreams she dreamed – the visions she saw – the imaginings which were her joy and comfort.
So, as they sat together, Ermengarde did not know that she was faint as well as ravenous, and that while she talked she now and then wondered if her hunger would let her sleep when she was left alone. She felt as if she had never been quite so hungry before.
“I wish I was as thin as you, Sara,” Ermengarde said suddenly. “I believe you are thinner than you used to be. Your eyes look so big, and look at the sharp little bones sticking out of your elbow!”
Sara pulled down her sleeve, which had pushed itself up.
“I always was a thin child,” she said bravely, “and I always had big green eyes.”
“I love your queer eyes,” said Ermengarde, looking into them with affectionate admiration. “They always look as if they saw such a long way. I love them – and I love them to be green – though they look black generally.”
“They are cat’s eyes,” laughed Sara; “but I can’t see in the dark with them – because I have tried, and I couldn’t – I wish I could.”
It was just at this minute that something happened at the skylight which neither of them saw. If either of them had chanced to turn and look, she would have been startled by the sight of a dark face which peered cautiously into the room and disappeared as quickly and almost as silently as it had appeared. Not quite as silently, however. Sara, who had keen ears, suddenly turned a little and looked up at the roof.
“That didn’t sound like Melchisedec,” she said. “It wasn’t scratchy enough.”
“What?” said Ermengarde, a little startled.
“Didn’t you think you heard something?” asked Sara.
“N-no,” Ermengarde faltered. “Did you?”
“Perhaps I didn’t,” said Sara; “but I thought I did. It sounded as if something was on the slates – something that dragged softly.”
“What could it be?” said Ermengarde. “Could it be – robbers?”
“No,” Sara began cheerfully. “There is nothing to steal – ”
She broke off in the middle of her words. They both heard the sound that checked her. It was not on the slates, but on the stairs below, and it was Miss Minchin’s angry voice. Sara sprang off the bed, and put out the candle.
“She is scolding Becky,” she whispered, as she stood in the darkness. “She is making her cry.”
“Will she come in here?” Ermengarde whispered back, panic-stricken.
“No. She will think I am in bed. Don’t stir.”
It was very seldom that Miss Minchin mounted the last flight of stairs. Sara could only remember that she had done it once before. But now she was angry enough to be coming at least part of the way up, and it sounded as if she was driving Becky before her.
“You impudent, dishonest child!” they heard her say. “Cook tells me she has missed things repeatedly.”
“’T warn’t me, mum,” said Becky, sobbing. “I was ’ungry enough, but ’t warn’t me – never!”
“You deserve to be sent to prison,” said Miss Minchin’s voice. “Picking and stealing! Half a meat-pie, indeed!”
“’T warn’t me,” wept Becky. “I could ’ave eat a whole un – but I never laid a finger on it.”
Miss Minchin was out of breath between temper and mounting the stairs. The meat-pie had been intended for her special late supper. It became apparent that she boxed Becky’s ears.
“Don’t tell falsehoods,” she said. “Go to your room this instant.”
Both Sara and Ermengarde heard the slap, and then heard Becky run in her slip-shod shoes up the stairs and into her attic. They heard her door shut, and knew that she threw herself upon her bed.
“I could ’ave e’t two of ’em,” they heard her cry into her pillow. “An’ I never took a bite. ’Twas cook give it to her policeman.”
Sara stood in the middle of the room in the darkness. She was clenching her little teeth and opening and shutting fiercely her outstretched hands. She could scarcely stand still, but she dared not move until Miss Minchin had gone down the stairs and all was still.
“The wicked, cruel thing!” she burst forth. “The cook takes things herself and then says Becky steals them. She doesn’t! She doesn’t! She’s so hungry sometimes that she eats crusts out of the ash-barrel!” She pressed her hands hard against her face and burst into passionate little sobs, and Ermengarde, hearing this unusual thing, was overawed by it. Sara was crying! The unconquerable Sara! It seemed to denote something new – some mood she had never known. Suppose – ! Suppose – ! A new dread possibility presented itself to her kind, slow, little mind all at once. She crept off the bed in the dark and found her way to the table where the candle stood. She struck a match and lit the candle. When she had lighted it, she bent forward and looked at Sara, with her new thought growing to definite fear in her eyes.
“Sara,” she said in a timid, almost awe-stricken voice, “are – are – you never told me – I don’t want to be rude, but – are you ever hungry?”
It was too much just at that moment. The barrier broke down. Sara lifted her face from her hands.
“Yes,” she said in a new passionate way. “Yes, I am. I’m so hungry now that I could almost eat you. And it makes it worse to hear poor Becky. She’s hungrier than I am.”
“Oh! Oh!” she cried wofully; “and I never knew!”
“I didn’t want you to know,” Sara said. “It would have made me feel like a street beggar. I know I look like a street beggar.”
“No, you don’t – you don’t!” Ermengarde broke in. “Your clothes are a little queer, – but you couldn’t look like a street beggar. You haven’t a street-beggar face.”
“A little boy once gave me a sixpence for charity,” said Sara, with a short little laugh in spite of herself. “Here it is.” And she pulled out the thin ribbon from her neck. “He wouldn’t have given me his Christmas sixpence if I hadn’t looked as if I needed it.”
Somehow the sight of the dear little sixpence was good for both of them. It made them laugh a little, though they both had tears in their eyes.
“Who was he?” asked Ermengarde, looking at it quite as if it had not been a mere ordinary silver sixpence.
“He was a darling little thing going to a party,” said Sara. “He was one of the Large Family, the little one with the round legs – the one I call Guy Clarence. I suppose his nursery was crammed with Christmas presents and hampers full of cakes and things, and he could see I had had nothing.”
Ermengarde gave a little jump backward. The last sentences had recalled something to her troubled mind and given her a sudden inspiration.
“Oh, Sara!” she cried. “What a silly thing I am not to have thought of it!”
“Something splendid!” said Ermengarde, in an excited hurry. “This very afternoon my nicest aunt sent me a box. It is full of good things. I never touched it, I had so much pudding at dinner, and I was so bothered about papa’s books.” Her words began to tumble over each other. “It’s got cake in it, and little meat-pies, and jam-tarts and buns, and oranges and red-currant wine, and figs and chocolate. I’ll creep back to my room and get it this minute, and we’ll eat it now.”
Sara almost reeled. When one is faint with hunger the mention of food has sometimes a curious effect. She clutched Ermengarde’s arm.
“Do you think – you could?” she ejaculated.
“I know I could,” answered Ermengarde, and she ran to the door – opened it softly – put her head out into the darkness, and listened. Then she went back to Sara. “The lights are out. Everybody’s in bed. I can creep – and creep – and no one will hear.”
It was so delightful that they caught each other’s hands and a sudden light sprang into Sara’s eyes.
“Ermie!” she said. “Let us pretend! Let us pretend it’s a party! And oh, won’t you invite the prisoner in the next cell?”
“Yes! Yes! Let us knock on the wall now. The jailer won’t hear.”
Sara went to the wall. Through it she could hear poor Becky crying more softly. She knocked four times.
“That means, ‘Come to me through the secret passage under the wall,’ she explained. ‘I have something to communicate.’”
Five quick knocks answered her.
“She is coming,” she said.
Almost immediately the door of the attic opened and Becky appeared. Her eyes were red and her cap was sliding off, and when she caught sight of Ermengarde she began to rub her face nervously with her apron.
“Don’t mind me a bit, Becky!” cried Ermengarde.
“Miss Ermengarde has asked you to come in,” said Sara, “because she is going to bring a box of good things up here to us.”
Becky’s cap almost fell off entirely, she broke in with such excitement.
“To eat, miss?” she said. “Things that’s good to eat?”
“Yes,” answered Sara, “and we are going to pretend a party.”
“And you shall have as much as you want to eat,” put in Ermengarde. “I’ll go this minute!”
She was in such haste that as she tiptoed out of the attic she dropped her red shawl and did not know it had fallen. No one saw it for a minute or so. Becky was too much overpowered by the good luck which had befallen her.
“Oh, miss! oh, miss!” she gasped; “I know it was you that asked her to let me come. It – it makes me cry to think of it.” And she went to Sara’s side and stood and looked at her worshippingly.
But in Sara’s hungry eyes the old light had begun to glow and transform her world for her. Here in the attic – with the cold night outside – with the afternoon in the sloppy streets barely passed – with the memory of the awful unfed look in the beggar child’s eyes not yet faded – this simple, cheerful thing had happened like a thing of magic.
She caught her breath.
“Somehow, something always happens,” she cried, “just before things get to the very worst. It is as if the Magic did it. If I could only just remember that always. The worst thing never quite comes.”
She gave Becky a little cheerful shake.
“No, no! You mustn’t cry!” she said. “We must make haste and set the table.”
“Set the table, miss?” said Becky, gazing round the room. “What’ll we set it with?”
Sara looked round the attic, too.
“There doesn’t seem to be much,” she answered, half laughing.
That moment she saw something and pounced upon it. It was Ermengarde’s red shawl which lay upon the floor.
“Here’s the shawl,” she cried. “I know she won’t mind it. It will make such a nice red table-cloth.”
They pulled the old table forward, and threw the shawl over it. Red is a wonderfully kind and comfortable color. It began to make the room look furnished directly.
“How nice a red rug would look on the floor!” exclaimed Sara. “We must pretend there is one!”
Her eye swept the bare boards with a swift glance of admiration. The rug was laid down already.
“How soft and thick it is!” she said, with the little laugh which Becky knew the meaning of; and she raised and set her foot down again delicately, as if she felt something under it.
“Yes, miss,” answered Becky, watching her with serious rapture. She was always quite serious.
“What next, now?” said Sara, and she stood still and put her hands over her eyes. “Something will come if I think and wait a little” – in a soft, expectant voice. “The Magic will tell me.”
One of her favorite fancies was that on “the outside,” as she called it, thoughts were waiting for people to call them. Becky had seen her stand and wait many a time before, and knew that in a few seconds she would uncover an enlightened, laughing face.
In a moment she did.
“There!” she cried. “It has come! I know now! I must look among the things in the old trunk I had when I was a princess.”
She flew to its corner and kneeled down. It had not been put in the attic for her benefit, but because there was no room for it elsewhere. Nothing had been left in it but rubbish. But she knew she should find something. The Magic always arranged that kind of thing in one way or another.
In a corner lay a package so insignificant-looking that it had been overlooked, and when she herself had found it she had kept it as a relic. It contained a dozen small white handkerchiefs. She seized them joyfully and ran to the table. She began to arrange them upon the red table-cover, patting and coaxing them into shape with the narrow lace edge curling outward, her Magic working its spells for her as she did it.
“These are the plates,” she said. “They are golden plates. These are the richly embroidered napkins. Nuns worked them in convents in Spain.”
“Did they, miss?” breathed Becky, her very soul uplifted by the information.
“You must pretend it,” said Sara. “If you pretend it enough, you will see them.”
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