"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.
Someone 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 tomorrow. You shall have neither breakfast, dinner, nor supper!"
"I have not had either dinner or supper today, 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 tomorrow, and I shall write to your papa. What would HE say if he knew where you are tonight?"
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 schoolroom.
"What were you wondering?"
It was very like the scene in the schoolroom. 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 tonight."
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 cozy 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 teapot; 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 flyleaf—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."
Imagine, if you can, what the rest of the evening was like. How they crouched by the fire which blazed and leaped and made so much of itself in the little grate. How they removed the covers of the dishes, and found rich, hot, savory soup, which was a meal in itself, and sandwiches and toast and muffins enough for both of them. The mug from the washstand was used as Becky's tea cup, and the tea was so delicious that it was not necessary to pretend that it was anything but tea. They were warm and full-fed and happy, and it was just like Sara that, having found her strange good fortune real, she should give herself up to the enjoyment of it to the utmost. She had lived such a life of imaginings that she was quite equal to accepting any wonderful thing that happened, and almost to cease, in a short time, to find it bewildering.
"I don't know anyone in the world who could have done it," she said; "but there has been someone. And here we are sitting by their fire—and—and—it's true! And whoever it is—wherever they are—I have a friend, Becky—someone is my friend."
It cannot be denied that as they sat before the blazing fire, and ate the nourishing, comfortable food, they felt a kind of rapturous awe, and looked into each other's eyes with something like doubt.
"Do you think," Becky faltered once, in a whisper, "do you think it could melt away, miss? Hadn't we better be quick?" And she hastily crammed her sandwich into her mouth. If it was only a dream, kitchen manners would be overlooked.
"No, it won't melt away," said Sara. "I am EATING this muffin, and I can taste it. You never really eat things in dreams. You only think you are going to eat them. Besides, I keep giving myself pinches; and I touched a hot piece of coal just now, on purpose."
The sleepy comfort which at length almost overpowered them was a heavenly thing. It was the drowsiness of happy, well-fed childhood, and they sat in the fire glow and luxuriated in it until Sara found herself turning to look at her transformed bed.
There were even blankets enough to share with Becky. The narrow couch in the next attic was more comfortable that night than its occupant had ever dreamed that it could be.
As she went out of the room, Becky turned upon the threshold and looked about her with devouring eyes.
"If it ain't here in the mornin', miss," she said, "it's been here tonight, anyways, an' I shan't never forget it." She looked at each particular thing, as if to commit it to memory. "The fire was THERE", pointing with her finger, "an' the table was before it; an' the lamp was there, an' the light looked rosy red; an' there was a satin cover on your bed, an' a warm rug on the floor, an' everythin' looked beautiful; an'"—she paused a second, and laid her hand on her stomach tenderly—"there WAS soup an' sandwiches an' muffins—there WAS." And, with this conviction a reality at least, she went away.
Through the mysterious agency which works in schools and among servants, it was quite well known in the morning that Sara Crewe was in horrible disgrace, that Ermengarde was under punishment, and that Becky would have been packed out of the house before breakfast, but that a scullery maid could not be dispensed with at once. The servants knew that she was allowed to stay because Miss Minchin could not easily find another creature helpless and humble enough to work like a bounden slave for so few shillings a week. The elder girls in the schoolroom knew that if Miss Minchin did not send Sara away it was for practical reasons of her own.
"She's growing so fast and learning such a lot, somehow," said Jessie to Lavinia, "that she will be given classes soon, and Miss Minchin knows she will have to work for nothing. It was rather nasty of you, Lavvy, to tell about her having fun in the garret. How did you find it out?"
"I got it out of Lottie. She's such a baby she didn't know she was telling me. There was nothing nasty at all in speaking to Miss Minchin. I felt it my duty"—priggishly. "She was being deceitful. And it's ridiculous that she should look so grand, and be made so much of, in her rags and tatters!"
"What were they doing when Miss Minchin caught them?"
"Pretending some silly thing. Ermengarde had taken up her hamper to share with Sara and Becky. She never invites us to share things. Not that I care, but it's rather vulgar of her to share with servant girls in attics. I wonder Miss Minchin didn't turn Sara out—even if she does want her for a teacher."
"If she was turned out where would she go?" inquired Jessie, a trifle anxiously.
"How do I know?" snapped Lavinia. "She'll look rather queer when she comes into the schoolroom this morning, I should think—after what's happened. She had no dinner yesterday, and she's not to have any today."
Jessie was not as ill-natured as she was silly. She picked up her book with a little jerk.
"Well, I think it's horrid," she said. "They've no right to starve her to death."
When Sara went into the kitchen that morning the cook looked askance at her, and so did the housemaids; but she passed them hurriedly. She had, in fact, overslept herself a little, and as Becky had done the same, neither had had time to see the other, and each had come downstairs in haste.
Sara went into the scullery. Becky was violently scrubbing a kettle, and was actually gurgling a little song in her throat. She looked up with a wildly elated face.
"It was there when I wakened, miss—the blanket," she whispered excitedly. "It was as real as it was last night."
"So was mine," said Sara. "It is all there now—all of it. While I was dressing I ate some of the cold things we left."
"Oh, laws! Oh, laws!" Becky uttered the exclamation in a sort of rapturous groan, and ducked her head over her kettle just in time, as the cook came in from the kitchen.
Miss Minchin had expected to see in Sara, when she appeared in the schoolroom, very much what Lavinia had expected to see. Sara had always been an annoying puzzle to her, because severity never made her cry or look frightened. When she was scolded she stood still and listened politely with a grave face; when she was punished she performed her extra tasks or went without her meals, making no complaint or outward sign of rebellion. The very fact that she never made an impudent answer seemed to Miss Minchin a kind of impudence in itself. But after yesterday's deprivation of meals, the violent scene of last night, the prospect of hunger today, she must surely have broken down. It would be strange indeed if she did not come downstairs with pale cheeks and red eyes and an unhappy, humbled face.
Miss Minchin saw her for the first time when she entered the schoolroom to hear the little French class recite its lessons and superintend its exercises. And she came in with a springing step, color in her cheeks, and a smile hovering about the corners of her mouth. It was the most astonishing thing Miss Minchin had ever known. It gave her quite a shock. What was the child made of? What could such a thing mean? She called her at once to her desk.
"You do not look as if you realize that you are in disgrace," she said. "Are you absolutely hardened?"
The truth is that when one is still a child—or even if one is grown up—and has been well fed, and has slept long and softly and warm; when one has gone to sleep in the midst of a fairy story, and has wakened to find it real, one cannot be unhappy or even look as if one were; and one could not, if one tried, keep a glow of joy out of one's eyes. Miss Minchin was almost struck dumb by the look of Sara's eyes when she made her perfectly respectful answer.
"I beg your pardon, Miss Minchin," she said; "I know that I am in disgrace."
"Be good enough not to forget it and look as if you had come into a fortune. It is an impertinence. And remember you are to have no food today."
"Yes, Miss Minchin," Sara answered; but as she turned away her heart leaped with the memory of what yesterday had been. "If the Magic had not saved me just in time," she thought, "how horrible it would have been!"
"She can't be very hungry," whispered Lavinia. "Just look at her. Perhaps she is pretending she has had a good breakfast"—with a spiteful laugh.
"She's different from other people," said Jessie, watching Sara with her class. "Sometimes I'm a bit frightened of her."
"Ridiculous thing!" ejaculated Lavinia.
All through the day the light was in Sara's face, and the color in her cheek. The servants cast puzzled glances at her, and whispered to each other, and Miss Amelia's small blue eyes wore an expression of bewilderment. What such an audacious look of well-being, under august displeasure could mean she could not understand. It was, however, just like Sara's singular obstinate way. She was probably determined to brave the matter out.
One thing Sara had resolved upon, as she thought things over. The wonders which had happened must be kept a secret, if such a thing were possible. If Miss Minchin should choose to mount to the attic again, of course all would be discovered. But it did not seem likely that she would do so for some time at least, unless she was led by suspicion. Ermengarde and Lottie would be watched with such strictness that they would not dare to steal out of their beds again. Ermengarde could be told the story and trusted to keep it secret. If Lottie made any discoveries, she could be bound to secrecy also. Perhaps the Magic itself would help to hide its own marvels.
"But whatever happens," Sara kept saying to herself all day—"WHATEVER happens, somewhere in the world there is a heavenly kind person who is my friend—my friend. If I never know who it is—if I never can even thank him—I shall never feel quite so lonely. Oh, the Magic was GOOD to me!"
If it was possible for weather to be worse than it had been the day before, it was worse this day—wetter, muddier, colder. There were more errands to be done, the cook was more irritable, and, knowing that Sara was in disgrace, she was more savage. But what does anything matter when one's Magic has just proved itself one's friend. Sara's supper of the night before had given her strength, she knew that she should sleep well and warmly, and, even though she had naturally begun to be hungry again before evening, she felt that she could bear it until breakfast-time on the following day, when her meals would surely be given to her again. It was quite late when she was at last allowed to go upstairs. She had been told to go into the schoolroom and study until ten o'clock, and she had become interested in her work, and remained over her books later.
When she reached the top flight of stairs and stood before the attic door, it must be confessed that her heart beat rather fast.
"Of course it MIGHT all have been taken away," she whispered, trying to be brave. "It might only have been lent to me for just that one awful night. But it WAS lent to me—I had it. It was real."
She pushed the door open and went in. Once inside, she gasped slightly, shut the door, and stood with her back against it looking from side to side.
The Magic had been there again. It actually had, and it had done even more than before. The fire was blazing, in lovely leaping flames, more merrily than ever. A number of new things had been brought into the attic which so altered the look of it that if she had not been past doubting she would have rubbed her eyes. Upon the low table another supper stood—this time with cups and plates for Becky as well as herself; a piece of bright, heavy, strange embroidery covered the battered mantel, and on it some ornaments had been placed. All the bare, ugly things which could be covered with draperies had been concealed and made to look quite pretty. Some odd materials of rich colors had been fastened against the wall with fine, sharp tacks—so sharp that they could be pressed into the wood and plaster without hammering. Some brilliant fans were pinned up, and there were several large cushions, big and substantial enough to use as seats. A wooden box was covered with a rug, and some cushions lay on it, so that it wore quite the air of a sofa.
Sara slowly moved away from the door and simply sat down and looked and looked again.
"It is exactly like something fairy come true," she said. "There isn't the least difference. I feel as if I might wish for anything—diamonds or bags of gold—and they would appear! THAT wouldn't be any stranger than this. Is this my garret? Am I the same cold, ragged, damp Sara? And to think I used to pretend and pretend and wish there were fairies! The one thing I always wanted was to see a fairy story come true. I am LIVING in a fairy story. I feel as if I might be a fairy myself, and able to turn things into anything else."
She rose and knocked upon the wall for the prisoner in the next cell, and the prisoner came.
When she entered she almost dropped in a heap upon the floor. For a few seconds she quite lost her breath.
"Oh, laws!" she gasped. "Oh, laws, miss!"
"You see," said Sara.
On this night Becky sat on a cushion upon the hearth rug and had a cup and saucer of her own.
When Sara went to bed she found that she had a new thick mattress and big downy pillows. Her old mattress and pillow had been removed to Becky's bedstead, and, consequently, with these additions Becky had been supplied with unheard-of comfort.
"Where does it all come from?" Becky broke forth once. "Laws, who does it, miss?"
"Don't let us even ASK," said Sara. "If it were not that I want to say, 'Oh, thank you,' I would rather not know. It makes it more beautiful."
From that time life became more wonderful day by day. The fairy story continued. Almost every day something new was done. Some new comfort or ornament appeared each time Sara opened the door at night, until in a short time the attic was a beautiful little room full of all sorts of odd and luxurious things. The ugly walls were gradually entirely covered with pictures and draperies, ingenious pieces of folding furniture appeared, a bookshelf was hung up and filled with books, new comforts and conveniences appeared one by one, until there seemed nothing left to be desired. When Sara went downstairs in the morning, the remains of the supper were on the table; and when she returned to the attic in the evening, the magician had removed them and left another nice little meal. Miss Minchin was as harsh and insulting as ever, Miss Amelia as peevish, and the servants were as vulgar and rude. Sara was sent on errands in all weathers, and scolded and driven hither and thither; she was scarcely allowed to speak to Ermengarde and Lottie; Lavinia sneered at the increasing shabbiness of her clothes; and the other girls stared curiously at her when she appeared in the schoolroom. But what did it all matter while she was living in this wonderful mysterious story? It was more romantic and delightful than anything she had ever invented to comfort her starved young soul and save herself from despair. Sometimes, when she was scolded, she could scarcely keep from smiling.
"If you only knew!" she was saying to herself. "If you only knew!"
The comfort and happiness she enjoyed were making her stronger, and she had them always to look forward to. If she came home from her errands wet and tired and hungry, she knew she would soon be warm and well fed after she had climbed the stairs. During the hardest day she could occupy herself blissfully by thinking of what she should see when she opened the attic door, and wondering what new delight had been prepared for her. In a very short time she began to look less thin. Color came into her cheeks, and her eyes did not seem so much too big for her face.
"Sara Crewe looks wonderfully well," Miss Minchin remarked disapprovingly to her sister.
"Yes," answered poor, silly Miss Amelia. "She is absolutely fattening. She was beginning to look like a little starved crow."
"Starved!" exclaimed Miss Minchin, angrily. "There was no reason why she should look starved. She always had plenty to eat!"
"Of—of course," agreed Miss Amelia, humbly, alarmed to find that she had, as usual, said the wrong thing.
"There is something very disagreeable in seeing that sort of thing in a child of her age," said Miss Minchin, with haughty vagueness.
"What—sort of thing?" Miss Amelia ventured.
"It might almost be called defiance," answered Miss Minchin, feeling annoyed because she knew the thing she resented was nothing like defiance, and she did not know what other unpleasant term to use. "The spirit and will of any other child would have been entirely humbled and broken by—by the changes she has had to submit to. But, upon my word, she seems as little subdued as if—as if she were a princess."
"Do you remember," put in the unwise Miss Amelia, "what she said to you that day in the schoolroom about what you would do if you found out that she was—"
"No, I don't," said Miss Minchin. "Don't talk nonsense." But she remembered very clearly indeed.
Very naturally, even Becky was beginning to look plumper and less frightened. She could not help it. She had her share in the secret fairy story, too. She had two mattresses, two pillows, plenty of bed-covering, and every night a hot supper and a seat on the cushions by the fire. The Bastille had melted away, the prisoners no longer existed. Two comforted children sat in the midst of delights. Sometimes Sara read aloud from her books, sometimes she learned her own lessons, sometimes she sat and looked into the fire and tried to imagine who her friend could be, and wished she could say to him some of the things in her heart.
Then it came about that another wonderful thing happened. A man came to the door and left several parcels. All were addressed in large letters, "To the Little Girl in the right-hand attic."
Sara herself was sent to open the door and take them in. She laid the two largest parcels on the hall table, and was looking at the address, when Miss Minchin came down the stairs and saw her.
"Take the things to the young lady to whom they belong," she said severely. "Don't stand there staring at them.
"They belong to me," answered Sara, quietly.
"To you?" exclaimed Miss Minchin. "What do you mean?"
"I don't know where they come from," said Sara, "but they are addressed to me. I sleep in the right-hand attic. Becky has the other one."
Miss Minchin came to her side and looked at the parcels with an excited expression.
"What is in them?" she demanded.
"I don't know," replied Sara.
"Open them," she ordered.
Sara did as she was told. When the packages were unfolded Miss Minchin's countenance wore suddenly a singular expression. What she saw was pretty and comfortable clothing—clothing of different kinds: shoes, stockings, and gloves, and a warm and beautiful coat. There were even a nice hat and an umbrella. They were all good and expensive things, and on the pocket of the coat was pinned a paper, on which were written these words: "To be worn every day. Will be replaced by others when necessary."
Miss Minchin was quite agitated. This was an incident which suggested strange things to her sordid mind. Could it be that she had made a mistake, after all, and that the neglected child had some powerful though eccentric friend in the background—perhaps some previously unknown relation, who had suddenly traced her whereabouts, and chose to provide for her in this mysterious and fantastic way? Relations were sometimes very odd—particularly rich old bachelor uncles, who did not care for having children near them. A man of that sort might prefer to overlook his young relation's welfare at a distance. Such a person, however, would be sure to be crotchety and hot-tempered enough to be easily offended. It would not be very pleasant if there were such a one, and he should learn all the truth about the thin, shabby clothes, the scant food, and the hard work. She felt very queer indeed, and very uncertain, and she gave a side glance at Sara.
"Well," she said, in a voice such as she had never used since the little girl lost her father, "someone is very kind to you. As the things have been sent, and you are to have new ones when they are worn out, you may as well go and put them on and look respectable. After you are dressed you may come downstairs and learn your lessons in the schoolroom. You need not go out on any more errands today."
About half an hour afterward, when the schoolroom door opened and Sara walked in, the entire seminary was struck dumb.
"My word!" ejaculated Jessie, jogging Lavinia's elbow. "Look at the Princess Sara!"
Everybody was looking, and when Lavinia looked she turned quite red.
It was the Princess Sara indeed. At least, since the days when she had been a princess, Sara had never looked as she did now. She did not seem the Sara they had seen come down the back stairs a few hours ago. She was dressed in the kind of frock Lavinia had been used to envying her the possession of. It was deep and warm in color, and beautifully made. Her slender feet looked as they had done when Jessie had admired them, and the hair, whose heavy locks had made her look rather like a Shetland pony when it fell loose about her small, odd face, was tied back with a ribbon.
"Perhaps someone has left her a fortune," Jessie whispered. "I always thought something would happen to her. She's so queer."
"Perhaps the diamond mines have suddenly appeared again," said Lavinia, scathingly. "Don't please her by staring at her in that way, you silly thing."
"Sara," broke in Miss Minchin's deep voice, "come and sit here."
And while the whole schoolroom stared and pushed with elbows, and scarcely made any effort to conceal its excited curiosity, Sara went to her old seat of honor, and bent her head over her books.
That night, when she went to her room, after she and Becky had eaten their supper she sat and looked at the fire seriously for a long time.
"Are you making something up in your head, miss?" Becky inquired with respectful softness. When Sara sat in silence and looked into the coals with dreaming eyes it generally meant that she was making a new story. But this time she was not, and she shook her head.
"No," she answered. "I am wondering what I ought to do."
Becky stared—still respectfully. She was filled with something approaching reverence for everything Sara did and said.
"I can't help thinking about my friend," Sara explained. "If he wants to keep himself a secret, it would be rude to try and find out who he is. But I do so want him to know how thankful I am to him—and how happy he has made me. Anyone who is kind wants to know when people have been made happy. They care for that more than for being thanked. I wish—I do wish—"
She stopped short because her eyes at that instant fell upon something standing on a table in a corner. It was something she had found in the room when she came up to it only two days before. It was a little writing-case fitted with paper and envelopes and pens and ink.
"Oh," she exclaimed, "why did I not think of that before?"
She rose and went to the corner and brought the case back to the fire.
"I can write to him," she said joyfully, "and leave it on the table. Then perhaps the person who takes the things away will take it, too. I won't ask him anything. He won't mind my thanking him, I feel sure."
So she wrote a note. This is what she said:
I hope you will not think it is impolite that I should write this note to you when you wish to keep yourself a secret. Please believe I do not mean to be impolite or try to find out anything at all; only I want to thank you for being so kind to me—so heavenly kind—and making everything like a fairy story. I am so grateful to you, and I am so happy—and so is Becky. Becky feels just as thankful as I do—it is all just as beautiful and wonderful to her as it is to me. We used to be so lonely and cold and hungry, and now—oh, just think what you have done for us! Please let me say just these words. It seems as if I OUGHT to say them. THANK you—THANK you—THANK you!
THE LITTLE GIRL IN THE ATTIC.
The next morning she left this on the little table, and in the evening it had been taken away with the other things; so she knew the Magician had received it, and she was happier for the thought. She was reading one of her new books to Becky just before they went to their respective beds, when her attention was attracted by a sound at the skylight. When she looked up from her page she saw that Becky had heard the sound also, as she had turned her head to look and was listening rather nervously.
"Something's there, miss," she whispered.
"Yes," said Sara, slowly. "It sounds—rather like a cat—trying to get in."
She left her chair and went to the skylight. It was a queer little sound she heard—like a soft scratching. She suddenly remembered something and laughed. She remembered a quaint little intruder who had made his way into the attic once before. She had seen him that very afternoon, sitting disconsolately on a table before a window in the Indian gentleman's house.
"Suppose," she whispered in pleased excitement—"just suppose it was the monkey who got away again. Oh, I wish it was!"
She climbed on a chair, very cautiously raised the skylight, and peeped out. It had been snowing all day, and on the snow, quite near her, crouched a tiny, shivering figure, whose small black face wrinkled itself piteously at sight of her.
"It is the monkey," she cried out. "He has crept out of the Lascar's attic, and he saw the light."
Becky ran to her side.
"Are you going to let him in, miss?" she said.
"Yes," Sara answered joyfully. "It's too cold for monkeys to be out. They're delicate. I'll coax him in."
She put a hand out delicately, speaking in a coaxing voice—as she spoke to the sparrows and to Melchisedec—as if she were some friendly little animal herself.
"Come along, monkey darling," she said. "I won't hurt you."
He knew she would not hurt him. He knew it before she laid her soft, caressing little paw on him and drew him towards her. He had felt human love in the slim brown hands of Ram Dass, and he felt it in hers. He let her lift him through the skylight, and when he found himself in her arms he cuddled up to her breast and looked up into her face.
"Nice monkey! Nice monkey!" she crooned, kissing his funny head. "Oh, I do love little animal things."
He was evidently glad to get to the fire, and when she sat down and held him on her knee he looked from her to Becky with mingled interest and appreciation.
"He IS plain-looking, miss, ain't he?" said Becky.
"He looks like a very ugly baby," laughed Sara. "I beg your pardon, monkey; but I'm glad you are not a baby. Your mother COULDN'T be proud of you, and no one would dare to say you looked like any of your relations. Oh, I do like you!"
She leaned back in her chair and reflected.
"Perhaps he's sorry he's so ugly," she said, "and it's always on his mind. I wonder if he HAS a mind. Monkey, my love, have you a mind?"
But the monkey only put up a tiny paw and scratched his head.
"What shall you do with him?" Becky asked.
"I shall let him sleep with me tonight, and then take him back to the Indian gentleman tomorrow. I am sorry to take you back, monkey; but you must go. You ought to be fondest of your own family; and I'm not a REAL relation."
And when she went to bed she made him a nest at her feet, and he curled up and slept there as if he were a baby and much pleased with his quarters.
"It Is the Child!"
The next afternoon three members of the Large Family sat in the Indian gentleman's library, doing their best to cheer him up. They had been allowed to come in to perform this office because he had specially invited them. He had been living in a state of suspense for some time, and today he was waiting for a certain event very anxiously. This event was the return of Mr. Carmichael from Moscow. His stay there had been prolonged from week to week. On his first arrival there, he had not been able satisfactorily to trace the family he had gone in search of. When he felt at last sure that he had found them and had gone to their house, he had been told that they were absent on a journey. His efforts to reach them had been unavailing, so he had decided to remain in Moscow until their return. Mr. Carrisford sat in his reclining chair, and Janet sat on the floor beside him. He was very fond of Janet. Nora had found a footstool, and Donald was astride the tiger's head which ornamented the rug made of the animal's skin. It must be owned that he was riding it rather violently.
"Don't chirrup so loud, Donald," Janet said. "When you come to cheer an ill person up you don't cheer him up at the top of your voice. Perhaps cheering up is too loud, Mr. Carrisford?" turning to the Indian gentleman.
But he only patted her shoulder.
"No, it isn't," he answered. "And it keeps me from thinking too much."
"I'm going to be quiet," Donald shouted. "We'll all be as quiet as mice."
"Mice don't make a noise like that," said Janet.
Donald made a bridle of his handkerchief and bounced up and down on the tiger's head.
"A whole lot of mice might," he said cheerfully. "A thousand mice might."
"I don't believe fifty thousand mice would," said Janet, severely; "and we have to be as quiet as one mouse."
Mr. Carrisford laughed and patted her shoulder again.
"Papa won't be very long now," she said. "May we talk about the lost little girl?"
"I don't think I could talk much about anything else just now," the Indian gentleman answered, knitting his forehead with a tired look.
"We like her so much," said Nora. "We call her the little un-fairy princess."
"Why?" the Indian gentleman inquired, because the fancies of the Large Family always made him forget things a little.
It was Janet who answered.
"It is because, though she is not exactly a fairy, she will be so rich when she is found that she will be like a princess in a fairy tale. We called her the fairy princess at first, but it didn't quite suit."
"Is it true," said Nora, "that her papa gave all his money to a friend to put in a mine that had diamonds in it, and then the friend thought he had lost it all and ran away because he felt as if he was a robber?"
"But he wasn't really, you know," put in Janet, hastily.
The Indian gentleman took hold of her hand quickly.
"No, he wasn't really," he said.
"I am sorry for the friend," Janet said; "I can't help it. He didn't mean to do it, and it would break his heart. I am sure it would break his heart."
"You are an understanding little woman, Janet," the Indian gentleman said, and he held her hand close.
"Did you tell Mr. Carrisford," Donald shouted again, "about the little-girl-who-isn't-a-beggar? Did you tell him she has new nice clothes? P'r'aps she's been found by somebody when she was lost."
"There's a cab!" exclaimed Janet. "It's stopping before the door. It is papa!"
They all ran to the windows to look out.
"Yes, it's papa," Donald proclaimed. "But there is no little girl."
All three of them incontinently fled from the room and tumbled into the hall. It was in this way they always welcomed their father. They were to be heard jumping up and down, clapping their hands, and being caught up and kissed.
Mr. Carrisford made an effort to rise and sank back again.
"It is no use," he said. "What a wreck I am!"
Mr. Carmichael's voice approached the door.
"No, children," he was saying; "you may come in after I have talked to Mr. Carrisford. Go and play with Ram Dass."
Then the door opened and he came in. He looked rosier than ever, and brought an atmosphere of freshness and health with him; but his eyes were disappointed and anxious as they met the invalid's look of eager question even as they grasped each other's hands.
"What news?" Mr. Carrisford asked. "The child the Russian people adopted?"
"She is not the child we are looking for," was Mr. Carmichael's answer. "She is much younger than Captain Crewe's little girl. Her name is Emily Carew. I have seen and talked to her. The Russians were able to give me every detail."
How wearied and miserable the Indian gentleman looked! His hand dropped from Mr. Carmichael's.
"Then the search has to be begun over again," he said. "That is all. Please sit down."
Mr. Carmichael took a seat. Somehow, he had gradually grown fond of this unhappy man. He was himself so well and happy, and so surrounded by cheerfulness and love, that desolation and broken health seemed pitifully unbearable things. If there had been the sound of just one gay little high-pitched voice in the house, it would have been so much less forlorn. And that a man should be compelled to carry about in his breast the thought that he had seemed to wrong and desert a child was not a thing one could face.
"Come, come," he said in his cheery voice; "we'll find her yet."
"We must begin at once. No time must be lost," Mr. Carrisford fretted. "Have you any new suggestion to make—any whatsoever?"
Mr. Carmichael felt rather restless, and he rose and began to pace the room with a thoughtful, though uncertain face.
"Well, perhaps," he said. "I don't know what it may be worth. The fact is, an idea occurred to me as I was thinking the thing over in the train on the journey from Dover."
"What was it? If she is alive, she is somewhere."
"Yes; she is SOMEWHERE. We have searched the schools in Paris. Let us give up Paris and begin in London. That was my idea—to search London."
"There are schools enough in London," said Mr. Carrisford. Then he slightly started, roused by a recollection. "By the way, there is one next door."
"Then we will begin there. We cannot begin nearer than next door."
"No," said Carrisford. "There is a child there who interests me; but she is not a pupil. And she is a little dark, forlorn creature, as unlike poor Crewe as a child could be."
Perhaps the Magic was at work again at that very moment—the beautiful Magic. It really seemed as if it might be so. What was it that brought Ram Dass into the room—even as his master spoke—salaaming respectfully, but with a scarcely concealed touch of excitement in his dark, flashing eyes?
"Sahib," he said, "the child herself has come—the child the sahib felt pity for. She brings back the monkey who had again run away to her attic under the roof. I have asked that she remain. It was my thought that it would please the sahib to see and speak with her."
"Who is she?" inquired Mr. Carmichael.
"God knows," Mr. Carrrisford answered. "She is the child I spoke of. A little drudge at the school." He waved his hand to Ram Dass, and addressed him. "Yes, I should like to see her. Go and bring her in." Then he turned to Mr. Carmichael. "While you have been away," he explained, "I have been desperate. The days were so dark and long. Ram Dass told me of this child's miseries, and together we invented a romantic plan to help her. I suppose it was a childish thing to do; but it gave me something to plan and think of. Without the help of an agile, soft-footed Oriental like Ram Dass, however, it could not have been done."
Then Sara came into the room. She carried the monkey in her arms, and he evidently did not intend to part from her, if it could be helped. He was clinging to her and chattering, and the interesting excitement of finding herself in the Indian gentleman's room had brought a flush to Sara's cheeks.
"Your monkey ran away again," she said, in her pretty voice. "He came to my garret window last night, and I took him in because it was so cold. I would have brought him back if it had not been so late. I knew you were ill and might not like to be disturbed."
The Indian gentleman's hollow eyes dwelt on her with curious interest.
"That was very thoughtful of you," he said.
Sara looked toward Ram Dass, who stood near the door.
"Shall I give him to the Lascar?" she asked.
"How do you know he is a Lascar?" said the Indian gentleman, smiling a little.
"Oh, I know Lascars," Sara said, handing over the reluctant monkey. "I was born in India."
The Indian gentleman sat upright so suddenly, and with such a change of expression, that she was for a moment quite startled.
"You were born in India," he exclaimed, "were you? Come here." And he held out his hand.
Sara went to him and laid her hand in his, as he seemed to want to take it. She stood still, and her green-gray eyes met his wonderingly. Something seemed to be the matter with him.
"You live next door?" he demanded.
"Yes; I live at Miss Minchin's seminary."
"But you are not one of her pupils?"
A strange little smile hovered about Sara's mouth. She hesitated a moment.
"I don't think I know exactly WHAT I am," she replied.
"At first I was a pupil, and a parlor boarder; but now—"
"You were a pupil! What are you now?"
The queer little sad smile was on Sara's lips again.
"I sleep in the attic, next to the scullery maid," she said. "I run errands for the cook—I do anything she tells me; and I teach the little ones their lessons."
"Question her, Carmichael," said Mr. Carrisford, sinking back as if he had lost his strength. "Question her; I cannot."
The big, kind father of the Large Family knew how to question little girls. Sara realized how much practice he had had when he spoke to her in his nice, encouraging voice.
"What do you mean by 'At first,' my child?" he inquired.
"When I was first taken there by my papa."
"Where is your papa?"
"He died," said Sara, very quietly. "He lost all his money and there was none left for me. There was no one to take care of me or to pay Miss Minchin."
"Carmichael!" the Indian gentleman cried out loudly. "Carmichael!"
"We must not frighten her," Mr. Carmichael said aside to him in a quick, low voice. And he added aloud to Sara, "So you were sent up into the attic, and made into a little drudge. That was about it, wasn't it?"
"There was no one to take care of me," said Sara. "There was no money; I belong to nobody."
"How did your father lose his money?" the Indian gentleman broke in breathlessly.
"He did not lose it himself," Sara answered, wondering still more each moment. "He had a friend he was very fond of—he was very fond of him. It was his friend who took his money. He trusted his friend too much."
The Indian gentleman's breath came more quickly.
"The friend might have MEANT to do no harm," he said. "It might have happened through a mistake."
Sara did not know how unrelenting her quiet young voice sounded as she answered. If she had known, she would surely have tried to soften it for the Indian gentleman's sake.
"The suffering was just as bad for my papa," she said. "It killed him."
"What was your father's name?" the Indian gentleman said. "Tell me."
"His name was Ralph Crewe," Sara answered, feeling startled. "Captain Crewe. He died in India."
The haggard face contracted, and Ram Dass sprang to his master's side.
"Carmichael," the invalid gasped, "it is the child—the child!"
For a moment Sara thought he was going to die. Ram Dass poured out drops from a bottle, and held them to his lips. Sara stood near, trembling a little. She looked in a bewildered way at Mr. Carmichael.
"What child am I?" she faltered.
"He was your father's friend," Mr. Carmichael answered her. "Don't be frightened. We have been looking for you for two years."
Sara put her hand up to her forehead, and her mouth trembled. She spoke as if she were in a dream.
"And I was at Miss Minchin's all the while," she half whispered. "Just on the other side of the wall."
"I Tried Not to Be"
It was pretty, comfortable Mrs. Carmichael who explained everything. She was sent for at once, and came across the square to take Sara into her warm arms and make clear to her all that had happened. The excitement of the totally unexpected discovery had been temporarily almost overpowering to Mr. Carrisford in his weak condition.
"Upon my word," he said faintly to Mr. Carmichael, when it was suggested that the little girl should go into another room. "I feel as if I do not want to lose sight of her."
"I will take care of her," Janet said, "and mamma will come in a few minutes." And it was Janet who led her away.
"We're so glad you are found," she said. "You don't know how glad we are that you are found."
Donald stood with his hands in his pockets, and gazed at Sara with reflecting and self-reproachful eyes.
"If I'd just asked what your name was when I gave you my sixpence," he said, "you would have told me it was Sara Crewe, and then you would have been found in a minute." Then Mrs. Carmichael came in. She looked very much moved, and suddenly took Sara in her arms and kissed her.
"You look bewildered, poor child," she said. "And it is not to be wondered at."
Sara could only think of one thing.
"Was he," she said, with a glance toward the closed door of the library—"was HE the wicked friend? Oh, do tell me!"
Mrs. Carmichael was crying as she kissed her again. She felt as if she ought to be kissed very often because she had not been kissed for so long.
"He was not wicked, my dear," she answered. "He did not really lose your papa's money. He only thought he had lost it; and because he loved him so much his grief made him so ill that for a time he was not in his right mind. He almost died of brain fever, and long before he began to recover your poor papa was dead."
"And he did not know where to find me," murmured Sara. "And I was so near." Somehow, she could not forget that she had been so near.
"He believed you were in school in France," Mrs. Carmichael explained. "And he was continually misled by false clues. He has looked for you everywhere. When he saw you pass by, looking so sad and neglected, he did not dream that you were his friend's poor child; but because you were a little girl, too, he was sorry for you, and wanted to make you happier. And he told Ram Dass to climb into your attic window and try to make you comfortable."
Sara gave a start of joy; her whole look changed.
"Did Ram Dass bring the things?" she cried out. "Did he tell Ram Dass to do it? Did he make the dream that came true?"
"Yes, my dear—yes! He is kind and good, and he was sorry for you, for little lost Sara Crewe's sake."
The library door opened and Mr. Carmichael appeared, calling Sara to him with a gesture.
"Mr. Carrisford is better already," he said. "He wants you to come to him."
Sara did not wait. When the Indian gentleman looked at her as she entered, he saw that her face was all alight.
She went and stood before his chair, with her hands clasped together against her breast.
"You sent the things to me," she said, in a joyful emotional little voice, "the beautiful, beautiful things? YOU sent them!"
"Yes, poor, dear child, I did," he answered her. He was weak and broken with long illness and trouble, but he looked at her with the look she remembered in her father's eyes—that look of loving her and wanting to take her in his arms. It made her kneel down by him, just as she used to kneel by her father when they were the dearest friends and lovers in the world.
"Then it is you who are my friend," she said; "it is you who are my friend!" And she dropped her face on his thin hand and kissed it again and again.
"The man will be himself again in three weeks," Mr. Carmichael said aside to his wife. "Look at his face already."
In fact, he did look changed. Here was the "Little Missus," and he had new things to think of and plan for already. In the first place, there was Miss Minchin. She must be interviewed and told of the change which had taken place in the fortunes of her pupil.
Sara was not to return to the seminary at all. The Indian gentleman was very determined upon that point. She must remain where she was, and Mr. Carmichael should go and see Miss Minchin himself.
"I am glad I need not go back," said Sara. "She will be very angry. She does not like me; though perhaps it is my fault, because I do not like her."
But, oddly enough, Miss Minchin made it unnecessary for Mr. Carmichael to go to her, by actually coming in search of her pupil herself. She had wanted Sara for something, and on inquiry had heard an astonishing thing. One of the housemaids had seen her steal out of the area with something hidden under her cloak, and had also seen her go up the steps of the next door and enter the house.
"What does she mean!" cried Miss Minchin to Miss Amelia.
"I don't know, I'm sure, sister," answered Miss Amelia. "Unless she has made friends with him because he has lived in India."
"It would be just like her to thrust herself upon him and try to gain his sympathies in some such impertinent fashion," said Miss Minchin. "She must have been in the house for two hours. I will not allow such presumption. I shall go and inquire into the matter, and apologize for her intrusion."
Sara was sitting on a footstool close to Mr. Carrisford's knee, and listening to some of the many things he felt it necessary to try to explain to her, when Ram Dass announced the visitor's arrival.
Sara rose involuntarily, and became rather pale; but Mr. Carrisford saw that she stood quietly, and showed none of the ordinary signs of child terror.
Miss Minchin entered the room with a sternly dignified manner. She was correctly and well dressed, and rigidly polite.
"I am sorry to disturb Mr. Carrisford," she said; "but I have explanations to make. I am Miss Minchin, the proprietress of the Young Ladies' Seminary next door."
The Indian gentleman looked at her for a moment in silent scrutiny. He was a man who had naturally a rather hot temper, and he did not wish it to get too much the better of him.
"So you are Miss Minchin?" he said.
"I am, sir."
"In that case," the Indian gentleman replied, "you have arrived at the right time. My solicitor, Mr. Carmichael, was just on the point of going to see you."
Mr. Carmichael bowed slightly, and Miss Minchin looked from him to Mr. Carrisford in amazement.
"Your solicitor!" she said. "I do not understand. I have come here as a matter of duty. I have just discovered that you have been intruded upon through the forwardness of one of my pupils—a charity pupil. I came to explain that she intruded without my knowledge." She turned upon Sara. "Go home at once," she commanded indignantly. "You shall be severely punished. Go home at once."
The Indian gentleman drew Sara to his side and patted her hand.
"She is not going."
Miss Minchin felt rather as if she must be losing her senses.
"Not going!" she repeated.
"No," said Mr. Carrisford. "She is not going home—if you give your house that name. Her home for the future will be with me."
Miss Minchin fell back in amazed indignation.
"With YOU! With YOU sir! What does this mean?"
"Kindly explain the matter, Carmichael," said the Indian gentleman; "and get it over as quickly as possible." And he made Sara sit down again, and held her hands in his—which was another trick of her papa's.
Then Mr. Carmichael explained—in the quiet, level-toned, steady manner of a man who knew his subject, and all its legal significance, which was a thing Miss Minchin understood as a business woman, and did not enjoy.
"Mr. Carrisford, madam," he said, "was an intimate friend of the late Captain Crewe. He was his partner in certain large investments. The fortune which Captain Crewe supposed he had lost has been recovered, and is now in Mr. Carrisford's hands."
"The fortune!" cried Miss Minchin; and she really lost color as she uttered the exclamation. "Sara's fortune!"
"It WILL be Sara's fortune," replied Mr. Carmichael, rather coldly. "It is Sara's fortune now, in fact. Certain events have increased it enormously. The diamond mines have retrieved themselves."
"The diamond mines!" Miss Minchin gasped out. If this was true, nothing so horrible, she felt, had ever happened to her since she was born.
"The diamond mines," Mr. Carmichael repeated, and he could not help adding, with a rather sly, unlawyer-like smile, "There are not many princesses, Miss Minchin, who are richer than your little charity pupil, Sara Crewe, will be. Mr. Carrisford has been searching for her for nearly two years; he has found her at last, and he will keep her."
After which he asked Miss Minchin to sit down while he explained matters to her fully, and went into such detail as was necessary to make it quite clear to her that Sara's future was an assured one, and that what had seemed to be lost was to be restored to her tenfold; also, that she had in Mr. Carrisford a guardian as well as a friend.
Miss Minchin was not a clever woman, and in her excitement she was silly enough to make one desperate effort to regain what she could not help seeing she had lost through her worldly folly.
"He found her under my care," she protested. "I have done everything for her. But for me she should have starved in the streets."
Here the Indian gentleman lost his temper.
"As to starving in the streets," he said, "she might have starved more comfortably there than in your attic."
"Captain Crewe left her in my charge," Miss Minchin argued. "She must return to it until she is of age. She can be a parlor boarder again. She must finish her education. The law will interfere in my behalf."
"Come, come, Miss Minchin," Mr. Carmichael interposed, "the law will do nothing of the sort. If Sara herself wishes to return to you, I dare say Mr. Carrisford might not refuse to allow it. But that rests with Sara."
"Then," said Miss Minchin, "I appeal to Sara. I have not spoiled you, perhaps," she said awkwardly to the little girl; "but you know that your papa was pleased with your progress. And—ahem—I have always been fond of you."
Sara's green-gray eyes fixed themselves on her with the quiet, clear look Miss Minchin particularly disliked.
"Have YOU, Miss Minchin?" she said. "I did not know that."
Miss Minchin reddened and drew herself up.
"You ought to have known it," said she; "but children, unfortunately, never know what is best for them. Amelia and I always said you were the cleverest child in the school. Will you not do your duty to your poor papa and come home with me?"
Sara took a step toward her and stood still. She was thinking of the day when she had been told that she belonged to nobody, and was in danger of being turned into the street; she was thinking of the cold, hungry hours she had spent alone with Emily and Melchisedec in the attic. She looked Miss Minchin steadily in the face.
"You know why I will not go home with you, Miss Minchin," she said; "you know quite well."
A hot flush showed itself on Miss Minchin's hard, angry face.
"You will never see your companions again," she began. "I will see that Ermengarde and Lottie are kept away—"
Mr. Carmichael stopped her with polite firmness.
"Excuse me," he said; "she will see anyone she wishes to see. The parents of Miss Crewe's fellow-pupils are not likely to refuse her invitations to visit her at her guardian's house. Mr. Carrisford will attend to that."
It must be confessed that even Miss Minchin flinched. This was worse than the eccentric bachelor uncle who might have a peppery temper and be easily offended at the treatment of his niece. A woman of sordid mind could easily believe that most people would not refuse to allow their children to remain friends with a little heiress of diamond mines. And if Mr. Carrisford chose to tell certain of her patrons how unhappy Sara Crewe had been made, many unpleasant things might happen.
"You have not undertaken an easy charge," she said to the Indian gentleman, as she turned to leave the room; "you will discover that very soon. The child is neither truthful nor grateful. I suppose"—to Sara—"that you feel now that you are a princess again."
Sara looked down and flushed a little, because she thought her pet fancy might not be easy for strangers—even nice ones—to understand at first.
"I—TRIED not to be anything else," she answered in a low voice—"even when I was coldest and hungriest—I tried not to be."
"Now it will not be necessary to try," said Miss Minchin, acidly, as Ram Dass salaamed her out of the room.
She returned home and, going to her sitting room, sent at once for Miss Amelia. She sat closeted with her all the rest of the afternoon, and it must be admitted that poor Miss Amelia passed through more than one bad quarter of an hour. She shed a good many tears, and mopped her eyes a good deal. One of her unfortunate remarks almost caused her sister to snap her head entirely off, but it resulted in an unusual manner.
"I'm not as clever as you, sister," she said, "and I am always afraid to say things to you for fear of making you angry. Perhaps if I were not so timid it would be better for the school and for both of us. I must say I've often thought it would have been better if you had been less severe on Sara Crewe, and had seen that she was decently dressed and more comfortable. I KNOW she was worked too hard for a child of her age, and I know she was only half fed—"
"How dare you say such a thing!" exclaimed Miss Minchin.
"I don't know how I dare," Miss Amelia answered, with a kind of reckless courage; "but now I've begun I may as well finish, whatever happens to me. The child was a clever child and a good child—and she would have paid you for any kindness you had shown her. But you didn't show her any. The fact was, she was too clever for you, and you always disliked her for that reason. She used to see through us both—"
"Amelia!" gasped her infuriated elder, looking as if she would box her ears and knock her cap off, as she had often done to Becky.
But Miss Amelia's disappointment had made her hysterical enough not to care what occurred next.
"She did! She did!" she cried. "She saw through us both. She saw that you were a hard-hearted, worldly woman, and that I was a weak fool, and that we were both of us vulgar and mean enough to grovel on our knees for her money, and behave ill to her because it was taken from her—though she behaved herself like a little princess even when she was a beggar. She did—she did—like a little princess!" And her hysterics got the better of the poor woman, and she began to laugh and cry both at once, and rock herself backward and forward.
"And now you've lost her," she cried wildly; "and some other school will get her and her money; and if she were like any other child she'd tell how she's been treated, and all our pupils would be taken away and we should be ruined. And it serves us right; but it serves you right more than it does me, for you are a hard woman, Maria Minchin, you're a hard, selfish, worldly woman!"
And she was in danger of making so much noise with her hysterical chokes and gurgles that her sister was obliged to go to her and apply salts and sal volatile to quiet her, instead of pouring forth her indignation at her audacity.
And from that time forward, it may be mentioned, the elder Miss Minchin actually began to stand a little in awe of a sister who, while she looked so foolish, was evidently not quite so foolish as she looked, and might, consequently, break out and speak truths people did not want to hear.
That evening, when the pupils were gathered together before the fire in the schoolroom, as was their custom before going to bed, Ermengarde came in with a letter in her hand and a queer expression on her round face. It was queer because, while it was an expression of delighted excitement, it was combined with such amazement as seemed to belong to a kind of shock just received.
"What IS the matter?" cried two or three voices at once.
"Is it anything to do with the row that has been going on?" said Lavinia, eagerly. "There has been such a row in Miss Minchin's room, Miss Amelia has had something like hysterics and has had to go to bed."
Ermengarde answered them slowly as if she were half stunned.
"I have just had this letter from Sara," she said, holding it out to let them see what a long letter it was.
"From Sara!" Every voice joined in that exclamation.
"Where is she?" almost shrieked Jessie.
"Next door," said Ermengarde, "with the Indian gentleman."
"Where? Where? Has she been sent away? Does Miss Minchin know? Was the row about that? Why did she write? Tell us! Tell us!"
There was a perfect babel, and Lottie began to cry plaintively.
Ermengarde answered them slowly as if she were half plunged out into what, at the moment, seemed the most important and self-explaining thing.
"There WERE diamond mines," she said stoutly; "there WERE!" Open mouths and open eyes confronted her.
"They were real," she hurried on. "It was all a mistake about them. Something happened for a time, and Mr. Carrisford thought they were ruined—"
"Who is Mr. Carrisford?" shouted Jessie.
"The Indian gentleman. And Captain Crewe thought so, too—and he died; and Mr. Carrisford had brain fever and ran away, and HE almost died. And he did not know where Sara was. And it turned out that there were millions and millions of diamonds in the mines; and half of them belong to Sara; and they belonged to her when she was living in the attic with no one but Melchisedec for a friend, and the cook ordering her about. And Mr. Carrisford found her this afternoon, and he has got her in his home—and she will never come back—and she will be more a princess than she ever was—a hundred and fifty thousand times more. And I am going to see her tomorrow afternoon. There!"
Even Miss Minchin herself could scarcely have controlled the uproar after this; and though she heard the noise, she did not try. She was not in the mood to face anything more than she was facing in her room, while Miss Amelia was weeping in bed. She knew that the news had penetrated the walls in some mysterious manner, and that every servant and every child would go to bed talking about it.
So until almost midnight the entire seminary, realizing somehow that all rules were laid aside, crowded round Ermengarde in the schoolroom and heard read and re-read the letter containing a story which was quite as wonderful as any Sara herself had ever invented, and which had the amazing charm of having happened to Sara herself and the mystic Indian gentleman in the very next house.
Becky, who had heard it also, managed to creep up stairs earlier than usual. She wanted to get away from people and go and look at the little magic room once more. She did not know what would happen to it. It was not likely that it would be left to Miss Minchin. It would be taken away, and the attic would be bare and empty again. Glad as she was for Sara's sake, she went up the last flight of stairs with a lump in her throat and tears blurring her sight. There would be no fire tonight, and no rosy lamp; no supper, and no princess sitting in the glow reading or telling stories—no princess!
She choked down a sob as she pushed the attic door open, and then she broke into a low cry.
The lamp was flushing the room, the fire was blazing, the supper was waiting; and Ram Dass was standing smiling into her startled face.
"Missee sahib remembered," he said. "She told the sahib all. She wished you to know the good fortune which has befallen her. Behold a letter on the tray. She has written. She did not wish that you should go to sleep unhappy. The sahib commands you to come to him tomorrow. You are to be the attendant of missee sahib. Tonight I take these things back over the roof."
And having said this with a beaming face, he made a little salaam and slipped through the skylight with an agile silentness of movement which showed Becky how easily he had done it before.
Never had such joy reigned in the nursery of the Large Family. Never had they dreamed of such delights as resulted from an intimate acquaintance with the little-girl-who-was-not-a-beggar. The mere fact of her sufferings and adventures made her a priceless possession. Everybody wanted to be told over and over again the things which had happened to her. When one was sitting by a warm fire in a big, glowing room, it was quite delightful to hear how cold it could be in an attic. It must be admitted that the attic was rather delighted in, and that its coldness and bareness quite sank into insignificance when Melchisedec was remembered, and one heard about the sparrows and things one could see if one climbed on the table and stuck one's head and shoulders out of the skylight.
Of course the thing loved best was the story of the banquet and the dream which was true. Sara told it for the first time the day after she had been found. Several members of the Large Family came to take tea with her, and as they sat or curled up on the hearth-rug she told the story in her own way, and the Indian gentleman listened and watched her. When she had finished she looked up at him and put her hand on his knee.
"That is my part," she said. "Now won't you tell your part of it, Uncle Tom?" He had asked her to call him always "Uncle Tom." "I don't know your part yet, and it must be beautiful."
So he told them how, when he sat alone, ill and dull and irritable, Ram Dass had tried to distract him by describing the passers by, and there was one child who passed oftener than any one else; he had begun to be interested in her—partly perhaps because he was thinking a great deal of a little girl, and partly because Ram Dass had been able to relate the incident of his visit to the attic in chase of the monkey. He had described its cheerless look, and the bearing of the child, who seemed as if she was not of the class of those who were treated as drudges and servants. Bit by bit, Ram Dass had made discoveries concerning the wretchedness of her life. He had found out how easy a matter it was to climb across the few yards of roof to the skylight, and this fact had been the beginning of all that followed.
"Sahib," he had said one day, "I could cross the slates and make the child a fire when she is out on some errand. When she returned, wet and cold, to find it blazing, she would think a magician had done it."
The idea had been so fanciful that Mr. Carrisford's sad face had lighted with a smile, and Ram Dass had been so filled with rapture that he had enlarged upon it and explained to his master how simple it would be to accomplish numbers of other things. He had shown a childlike pleasure and invention, and the preparations for the carrying out of the plan had filled many a day with interest which would otherwise have dragged wearily. On the night of the frustrated banquet Ram Dass had kept watch, all his packages being in readiness in the attic which was his own; and the person who was to help him had waited with him, as interested as himself in the odd adventure. Ram Dass had been lying flat upon the slates, looking in at the skylight, when the banquet had come to its disastrous conclusion; he had been sure of the profoundness of Sara's wearied sleep; and then, with a dark lantern, he had crept into the room, while his companion remained outside and handed the things to him. When Sara had stirred ever so faintly, Ram Dass had closed the lantern-slide and lain flat upon the floor. These and many other exciting things the children found out by asking a thousand questions.
"I am so glad," Sara said. "I am so GLAD it was you who were my friend!"
There never were such friends as these two became. Somehow, they seemed to suit each other in a wonderful way. The Indian gentleman had never had a companion he liked quite as much as he liked Sara. In a month's time he was, as Mr. Carmichael had prophesied he would be, a new man. He was always amused and interested, and he began to find an actual pleasure in the possession of the wealth he had imagined that he loathed the burden of. There were so many charming things to plan for Sara. There was a little joke between them that he was a magician, and it was one of his pleasures to invent things to surprise her. She found beautiful new flowers growing in her room, whimsical little gifts tucked under pillows, and once, as they sat together in the evening, they heard the scratch of a heavy paw on the door, and when Sara went to find out what it was, there stood a great dog—a splendid Russian boarhound—with a grand silver and gold collar bearing an inscription. "I am Boris," it read; "I serve the Princess Sara."
There was nothing the Indian gentleman loved more than the recollection of the little princess in rags and tatters. The afternoons in which the Large Family, or Ermengarde and Lottie, gathered to rejoice together were very delightful. But the hours when Sara and the Indian gentleman sat alone and read or talked had a special charm of their own. During their passing many interesting things occurred.
One evening, Mr. Carrisford, looking up from his book, noticed that his companion had not stirred for some time, but sat gazing into the fire.
"What are you 'supposing,' Sara?" he asked.
Sara looked up, with a bright color on her cheek.
"I WAS supposing," she said; "I was remembering that hungry day, and a child I saw."
"But there were a great many hungry days," said the Indian gentleman, with rather a sad tone in his voice. "Which hungry day was it?"
"I forgot you didn't know," said Sara. "It was the day the dream came true."
Then she told him the story of the bun shop, and the fourpence she picked up out of the sloppy mud, and the child who was hungrier than herself. She told it quite simply, and in as few words as possible; but somehow the Indian gentleman found it necessary to shade his eyes with his hand and look down at the carpet.
"And I was supposing a kind of plan," she said, when she had finished. "I was thinking I should like to do something."
"What was it?" said Mr. Carrisford, in a low tone. "You may do anything you like to do, princess."
"I was wondering," rather hesitated Sara—"you know, you say I have so much money—I was wondering if I could go to see the bun-woman, and tell her that if, when hungry children—particularly on those dreadful days—come and sit on the steps, or look in at the window, she would just call them in and give them something to eat, she might send the bills to me. Could I do that?"
"You shall do it tomorrow morning," said the Indian gentleman.
"Thank you," said Sara. "You see, I know what it is to be hungry, and it is very hard when one cannot even PRETEND it away."
"Yes, yes, my dear," said the Indian gentleman. "Yes, yes, it must be. Try to forget it. Come and sit on this footstool near my knee, and only remember you are a princess."
"Yes," said Sara, smiling; "and I can give buns and bread to the populace." And she went and sat on the stool, and the Indian gentleman (he used to like her to call him that, too, sometimes) drew her small dark head down on his knee and stroked her hair.
The next morning, Miss Minchin, in looking out of her window, saw the things she perhaps least enjoyed seeing. The Indian gentleman's carriage, with its tall horses, drew up before the door of the next house, and its owner and a little figure, warm with soft, rich furs, descended the steps to get into it. The little figure was a familiar one, and reminded Miss Minchin of days in the past. It was followed by another as familiar—the sight of which she found very irritating. It was Becky, who, in the character of delighted attendant, always accompanied her young mistress to her carriage, carrying wraps and belongings. Already Becky had a pink, round face.
A little later the carriage drew up before the door of the baker's shop, and its occupants got out, oddly enough, just as the bun-woman was putting a tray of smoking-hot buns into the window.
When Sara entered the shop the woman turned and looked at her, and, leaving the buns, came and stood behind the counter. For a moment she looked at Sara very hard indeed, and then her good-natured face lighted up.
"I'm sure that I remember you, miss," she said. "And yet—"
"Yes," said Sara; "once you gave me six buns for fourpence, and—"
"And you gave five of 'em to a beggar child," the woman broke in on her. "I've always remembered it. I couldn't make it out at first." She turned round to the Indian gentleman and spoke her next words to him. "I beg your pardon, sir, but there's not many young people that notices a hungry face in that way; and I've thought of it many a time. Excuse the liberty, miss,"—to Sara—"but you look rosier and—well, better than you did that—that—"
"I am better, thank you," said Sara. "And—I am much happier—and I have come to ask you to do something for me."
"Me, miss!" exclaimed the bun-woman, smiling cheerfully. "Why, bless you! Yes, miss. What can I do?"
And then Sara, leaning on the counter, made her little proposal concerning the dreadful days and the hungry waifs and the buns.
The woman watched her, and listened with an astonished face.
"Why, bless me!" she said again when she had heard it all; "it'll be a pleasure to me to do it. I am a working-woman myself and cannot afford to do much on my own account, and there's sights of trouble on every side; but, if you'll excuse me, I'm bound to say I've given away many a bit of bread since that wet afternoon, just along o' thinking of you—an' how wet an' cold you was, an' how hungry you looked; an' yet you gave away your hot buns as if you was a princess."
The Indian gentleman smiled involuntarily at this, and Sara smiled a little, too, remembering what she had said to herself when she put the buns down on the ravenous child's ragged lap.
"She looked so hungry," she said. "She was even hungrier than I was."
"She was starving," said the woman. "Many's the time she's told me of it since—how she sat there in the wet, and felt as if a wolf was a-tearing at her poor young insides."
"Oh, have you seen her since then?" exclaimed Sara. "Do you know where she is?"
"Yes, I do," answered the woman, smiling more good-naturedly than ever. "Why, she's in that there back room, miss, an' has been for a month; an' a decent, well-meanin' girl she's goin' to turn out, an' such a help to me in the shop an' in the kitchen as you'd scarce believe, knowin' how she's lived."
She stepped to the door of the little back parlor and spoke; and the next minute a girl came out and followed her behind the counter. And actually it was the beggar-child, clean and neatly clothed, and looking as if she had not been hungry for a long time. She looked shy, but she had a nice face, now that she was no longer a savage, and the wild look had gone from her eyes. She knew Sara in an instant, and stood and looked at her as if she could never look enough.
"You see," said the woman, "I told her to come when she was hungry, and when she'd come I'd give her odd jobs to do; an' I found she was willing, and somehow I got to like her; and the end of it was, I've given her a place an' a home, and she helps me, an' behaves well, an' is as thankful as a girl can be. Her name's Anne. She has no other."
The children stood and looked at each other for a few minutes; and then Sara took her hand out of her muff and held it out across the counter, and Anne took it, and they looked straight into each other's eyes.
"I am so glad," Sara said. "And I have just thought of something. Perhaps Mrs. Brown will let you be the one to give the buns and bread to the children. Perhaps you would like to do it because you know what it is to be hungry, too."
"Yes, miss," said the girl.
And, somehow, Sara felt as if she understood her, though she said so little, and only stood still and looked and looked after her as she went out of the shop with the Indian gentleman, and they got into the carriage and drove away.