A Little Princess: Being the whole story of Sara Crewe now told for the first time
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“Yes, miss,” said Becky; and as Sara returned to the trunk she devoted herself to the effort of accomplishing an end so much to be desired.
Sara turned suddenly to find her standing by the table, looking very queer indeed. She had shut her eyes, and was twisting her face in strange, convulsive contortions, her hands hanging stiffly clenched at her sides. She looked as if she was trying to lift some enormous weight.
“What is the matter, Becky?” Sara cried. “What are you doing?”
Becky opened her eyes with a start.
“I was a-‘pretendin’,’ miss,” she answered a little sheepishly; “I was tryin’ to see it like you do. I almost did,” with a hopeful grin. “But it takes a lot o’ stren’th.”
“Perhaps it does if you are not used to it,” said Sara, with friendly sympathy; “but you don’t know how easy it is when you’ve done it often. I wouldn’t try so hard just at first. It will come to you after a while. I’ll just tell you what things are. Look at these.”
She held an old summer hat in her hand which she had fished out of the bottom of the trunk. There was a wreath of flowers on it. She pulled the wreath off.
“These are garlands for the feast,” she said grandly. “They fill all the air with perfume. There’s a mug on the wash-stand, Becky. Oh – and bring the soap-dish for a centrepiece.”
Becky handed them to her reverently.
“What are they now, miss?” she inquired. “You’d think they was made of crockery, – but I know they ain’t.”
“This is a carven flagon,” said Sara, arranging tendrils of the wreath about the mug. “And this” – bending tenderly over the soap-dish and heaping it with roses – “is purest alabaster encrusted with gems.”
She touched the things gently, a happy smile hovering about her lips which made her look as if she were a creature in a dream.
“My, ain’t it lovely!” whispered Becky.
“If we just had something for bonbon-dishes,” Sara murmured. “There!” – darting to the trunk again. “I remember I saw something this minute.”
It was only a bundle of wool wrapped in red and white tissue-paper, but the tissue-paper was soon twisted into the form of little dishes, and was combined with the remaining flowers to ornament the candlestick which was to light the feast. Only the Magic could have made it more than an old table covered with a red shawl and set with rubbish from a long-unopened trunk. But Sara drew back and gazed at it, seeing wonders; and Becky, after staring in delight, spoke with bated breath.
“This ’ere,” she suggested, with a glance round the attic – “is it the Bastille now – or has it turned into somethin’ different?”
“Oh, yes, yes!” said Sara; “quite different. It is a banquet-hall!”
“My eye, miss!” ejaculated Becky. “A blanket-’all!” and she turned to view the splendors about her with awed bewilderment.
“A banquet-hall,” said Sara. “A vast chamber where feasts are given. It has a vaulted roof, and a minstrels’ gallery, and a huge chimney filled with blazing oaken logs, and it is brilliant with waxen tapers twinkling on every side.”
“My eye, Miss Sara!” gasped Becky again.
Then the door opened, and Ermengarde came in, rather staggering under the weight of her hamper.She started back with an exclamation of joy. To enter from the chill darkness outside, and find one’s self confronted by a totally unanticipated festal board, draped with red, adorned with white napery, and wreathed with flowers, was to feel that the preparations were brilliant indeed.
“Oh, Sara!” she cried out. “You are the cleverest girl I ever saw!”
“Isn’t it nice?” said Sara. “They are things out of my old trunk. I asked my Magic, and it told me to go and look.”
“But oh, miss,” cried Becky, “wait till she’s told you what they are! They ain’t just – oh, miss, please tell her,” appealing to Sara.
So Sara told her, and because her Magic helped her she made her almost see it all: the golden platters – the vaulted spaces – the blazing logs – the twinkling waxen tapers. As the things were taken out of the hamper – the frosted cakes – the fruits – the bonbons and the wine – the feast became a splendid thing.
“It’s like a real party!” cried Ermengarde.
“It’s like a queen’s table,” sighed Becky.
Then Ermengarde had a sudden brilliant thought.
“I’ll tell you what, Sara,” she said. “Pretend you are a princess now and this is a royal feast.”
“But it’s your feast,” said Sara; “you must be the princess, and we will be your maids of honor.”
“Oh, I can’t,” said Ermengarde. “I’m too fat, and I don’t know how. You be her.”
“Well, if you want me to,” said Sara.
But suddenly she thought of something else and ran to the rusty grate.
“There is a lot of paper and rubbish stuffed in here!” she exclaimed. “If we light it, there will be a bright blaze for a few minutes, and we shall feel as if it was a real fire.” She struck a match and lighted it up with a great specious glow which illuminated the room.
“By the time it stops blazing,” Sara said, “we shall forget about its not being real.”
She stood in the dancing glow and smiled.
“Doesn’t it look real?” she said. “Now we will begin the party.”
She led the way to the table. She waved her hand graciously to Ermengarde and Becky. She was in the midst of her dream.
“Advance, fair damsels,” she said in her happy dream-voice, “and be seated at the banquet-table. My noble father, the king, who is absent on a long journey, has commanded me to feast you.” She turned her head slightly toward the corner of the room. “What, ho! there, minstrels! Strike up with your viols and bassoons. Princesses,” she explained rapidly to Ermengarde and Becky, “always had minstrels to play at their feasts. Pretend there is a minstrel gallery up there in the corner. Now we will begin.”
They had barely had time to take their pieces of cake into their hands – not one of them had time to do more, when – they all three sprang to their feet and turned pale faces toward the door – listening – listening.
Some one was coming up the stairs. There was no mistake about it. Each of them recognized the angry, mounting tread and knew that the end of all things had come.
“It’s – the missus!” choked Becky, and dropped her piece of cake upon the floor.
“Yes,” said Sara, her eyes growing shocked and large in her small white face. “Miss Minchin has found us out.”
Miss Minchin struck the door open with a blow of her hand. She was pale herself, but it was with rage. She looked from the frightened faces to the banquet-table, and from the banquet-table to the last flicker of the burnt paper in the grate.
“I have been suspecting something of this sort,” she exclaimed; “but I did not dream of such audacity. Lavinia was telling the truth.”
So they knew that it was Lavinia who had somehow guessed their secret and had betrayed them. Miss Minchin strode over to Becky and boxed her ears for a second time.
“You impudent creature!” she said. “You leave the house in the morning!”
Sara stood quite still, her eyes growing larger, her face paler. Ermengarde burst into tears.
“Oh, don’t send her away,” she sobbed. “My aunt sent me the hamper. We’re – only – having a party.”
“So I see,” said Miss Minchin, witheringly. “With the Princess Sara at the head of the table.” She turned fiercely on Sara. “It is your doing, I know,” she cried. “Ermengarde would never have thought of such a thing. You decorated the table, I suppose – with this rubbish.” She stamped her foot at Becky. “Go to your attic!” she commanded, and Becky stole away, her face hidden in her apron, her shoulders shaking.
Then it was Sara’s turn again.
“I will attend to you to-morrow. You shall have neither breakfast, dinner, nor supper!”
“I have not had either dinner or supper to-day, Miss Minchin,” said Sara, rather faintly.
“Then all the better. You will have something to remember. Don’t stand there. Put those things into the hamper again.”
She began to sweep them off the table into the hamper herself, and caught sight of Ermengarde’s new books.
“And you” – to Ermengarde – “have brought your beautiful new books into this dirty attic. Take them up and go back to bed. You will stay there all day to-morrow, and I shall write to your papa. What would he say if he knew where you are to-night?”
Something she saw in Sara’s grave, fixed gaze at this moment made her turn on her fiercely.
“What are you thinking of?” she demanded. “Why do you look at me like that?”
“I was wondering,” answered Sara, as she had answered that notable day in the school-room.
“What were you wondering?”
It was very like the scene in the school-room. There was no pertness in Sara’s manner. It was only sad and quiet.
“I was wondering,” she said in a low voice, “what my papa would say if he knew where I am to-night.”
Miss Minchin was infuriated just as she had been before, and her anger expressed itself, as before, in an intemperate fashion. She flew at her and shook her.
“You insolent, unmanageable child!” she cried. “How dare you! How dare you!”
She picked up the books, swept the rest of the feast back into the hamper in a jumbled heap, thrust it into Ermengarde’s arms, and pushed her before her toward the door.
“I will leave you to wonder,” she said. “Go to bed this instant.” And she shut the door behind herself and poor stumbling Ermengarde, and left Sara standing quite alone.
The dream was quite at an end. The last spark had died out of the paper in the grate and left only black tinder; the table was left bare, the golden plates and richly embroidered napkins, and the garlands were transformed again into old handkerchiefs, scraps of red and white paper, and discarded artificial flowers all scattered on the floor; the minstrels in the minstrel gallery had stolen away, and the viols and bassoons were still. Emily was sitting with her back against the wall, staring very hard. Sara saw her, and went and picked her up with trembling hands.
“There isn’t any banquet left, Emily,” she said. “And there isn’t any princess. There is nothing left but the prisoners in the Bastille.” And she sat down and hid her face.
What would have happened if she had not hidden it just then, and if she had chanced to look up at the skylight at the wrong moment, I do not know – perhaps the end of this chapter might have been quite different – because if she had glanced at the skylight she would certainly have been startled by what she would have seen. She would have seen exactly the same face pressed against the glass and peering in at her as it had peered in earlier in the evening when she had been talking to Ermengarde.
But she did not look up. She sat with her little black head in her arms for some time. She always sat like that when she was trying to bear something in silence. Then she got up and went slowly to the bed.
“I can’t pretend anything else – while I am awake,” she said. “There wouldn’t be any use in trying. If I go to sleep, perhaps a dream will come and pretend for me.”
She suddenly felt so tired – perhaps through want of food – that she sat down on the edge of the bed quite weakly.
“Suppose there was a bright fire in the grate, with lots of little dancing flames,” she murmured. “Suppose there was a comfortable chair before it – and suppose there was a small table near, with a little hot – hot supper on it. And suppose” – as she drew the thin coverings over her – “suppose this was a beautiful soft bed, with fleecy blankets and large downy pillows. Suppose – suppose – ” And her very weariness was good to her, for her eyes closed and she fell fast asleep.
She did not know how long she slept. But she had been tired enough to sleep deeply and profoundly – too deeply and soundly to be disturbed by anything, even by the squeaks and scamperings of Melchisedec’s entire family, if all his sons and daughters had chosen to come out of their hole to fight and tumble and play.
When she awakened it was rather suddenly, and she did not know that any particular thing had called her out of her sleep. The truth was, however, that it was a sound which had called her back – a real sound – the click of the skylight as it fell in closing after a lithe white figure which slipped through it and crouched down close by upon the slates of the roof – just near enough to see what happened in the attic, but not near enough to be seen.
At first she did not open her eyes. She felt too sleepy and – curiously enough – too warm and comfortable. She was so warm and comfortable, indeed, that she did not believe she was really awake. She never was as warm and cosey as this except in some lovely vision.
“What a nice dream!” she murmured. “I feel quite warm. I – don’t – want – to – wake – up.”
Of course it was a dream. She felt as if warm, delightful bedclothes were heaped upon her. She could actually feel blankets, and when she put out her hand it touched something exactly like a satin-covered eider-down quilt. She must not awaken from this delight – she must be quite still and make it last.
But she could not – even though she kept her eyes closed tightly, she could not. Something was forcing her to awaken – something in the room. It was a sense of light, and a sound – the sound of a crackling, roaring little fire.
“Oh, I am awakening,” she said mournfully. “I can’t help it – I can’t.”
Her eyes opened in spite of herself. And then she actually smiled – for what she saw she had never seen in the attic before, and knew she never should see.
“Oh, I haven’t awakened,” she whispered, daring to rise on her elbow and look all about her. “I am dreaming yet.” She knew it must be a dream, for if she were awake such things could not – could not be.
Do you wonder that she felt sure she had not come back to earth? This is what she saw. In the grate there was a glowing, blazing fire; on the hob was a little brass kettle hissing and boiling; spread upon the floor was a thick, warm crimson rug; before the fire a folding-chair, unfolded, and with cushions on it; by the chair a small folding-table, unfolded, covered with a white cloth, and upon it spread small covered dishes, a cup, a saucer, a tea-pot; on the bed were new warm coverings and a satin-covered down quilt; at the foot a curious wadded silk robe, a pair of quilted slippers, and some books. The room of her dream seemed changed into fairyland – and it was flooded with warm light, for a bright lamp stood on the table covered with a rosy shade.
She sat up, resting on her elbow, and her breathing came short and fast.
“It does not – melt away,” she panted. “Oh, I never had such a dream before.” She scarcely dared to stir; but at last she pushed the bedclothes aside, and put her feet on the floor with a rapturous smile.
“I am dreaming – I am getting out of bed,” she heard her own voice say; and then, as she stood up in the midst of it all, turning slowly from side to side, – “I am dreaming it stays – real! I’m dreaming it feels real. It’s bewitched – or I’m bewitched. I only think I see it all.” Her words began to hurry themselves. “If I can only keep on thinking it,” she cried, “I don’t care! I don’t care!”
She stood panting a moment longer, and then cried out again.
“Oh, it isn’t true!” she said. “It can’t be true! But oh, how true it seems!”
The blazing fire drew her to it, and she knelt down and held out her hands close to it – so close that the heat made her start back.
“A fire I only dreamed wouldn’t be hot,” she cried.
She sprang up, touched the table, the dishes, the rug; she went to the bed and touched the blankets. She took up the soft wadded dressing-gown, and suddenly clutched it to her breast and held it to her cheek.
“It’s warm. It’s soft!” she almost sobbed. “It’s real. It must be!”
She threw it over her shoulders, and put her feet into the slippers.
“They are real, too. It’s all real!” she cried. “I am not – I am not dreaming!”
She almost staggered to the books and opened the one which lay upon the top. Something was written on the fly-leaf – just a few words, and they were these:
“To the little girl in the attic. From a friend.”
When she saw that – wasn’t it a strange thing for her to do? – she put her face down upon the page and burst into tears.
“I don’t know who it is,” she said; “but somebody cares for me a little. I have a friend.”
She took her candle and stole out of her own room and into Becky’s, and stood by her bedside.
“Becky, Becky!” she whispered as loudly as she dared. “Wake up!”
When Becky wakened, and she sat upright staring aghast, her face still smudged with traces of tears, beside her stood a little figure in a luxurious wadded robe of crimson silk. The face she saw was a shining, wonderful thing. The Princess Sara – as she remembered her – stood at her very bedside, holding a candle in her hand.
“Come,” she said. “Oh, Becky, come!”
Becky was too frightened to speak. She simply got up and followed her, with her mouth and eyes open, and without a word.
And when they crossed the threshold, Sara shut the door gently and drew her into the warm, glowing midst of things which made her brain reel and her hungry senses faint.
“It’s true! It’s true!” she cried. “I’ve touched them all. They are as real as we are. The Magic has come and done it, Becky, while we were asleep – the Magic that won’t let those worst things ever quite happen.”