Chapter 7 –Part II
THE DIAMOND-MINES AGAIN continued…
“If you think she is to be foisted off on me, you are greatly mistaken,” Miss Minchin gasped. “I have been robbed and cheated; I will turn her into the street!”
If she had not been so furious, she would have been too discreet to say quite so much. She saw herself burdened with an extravagantly brought-up child whom she had always resented, and she lost all self-control.
Mr. Barrow undisturbedly moved toward the door.
“I wouldn’t do that, madam,” he commented; “it wouldn’t look well. Unpleasant story to get about in connection with the establishment. Pupil bundled out penniless and without friends.”
He was a clever business man, and he knew what he was saying. He also knew that Miss Minchin was a business woman, and would be shrewd enough to see the truth. She could not afford to do a thing which would make people speak of her as cruel and hard-hearted.
“Better keep her and make use of her,” he added. “She’s a clever child, I believe. You can get a good deal out of her as she grows older.”
“I will get a good deal out of her before she grows older!” exclaimed Miss Minchin.
“I am sure you will, ma’am,” said Mr. Barrow, with a little sinister smile. “I am sure you will. Good morning!”
He bowed himself out and closed the door, and it must be confessed that Miss Minchin stood for a few moments and glared at it. What he had said was quite true. She knew it. She had absolutely no redress. Her show pupil had melted into nothingness, leaving only a friendless, beggared little girl. Such money as she herself had advanced was lost and could not be regained.
And as she stood there breathless under her sense of injury, there fell upon her ears a burst of gay voices from her own sacred room, which had actually been given up to the feast. She could at least stop this.
But as she started toward the door it was opened by Miss Amelia, who, when she caught sight of the changed, angry face, fell back a step in alarm.
“What is the matter, sister?” she ejaculated.
Miss Minchin’s voice was almost fierce when she answered:
“Where is Sara Crewe?”
Miss Amelia was bewildered.
“Sara!” she stammered. “Why, she’s with the children in your room, of course.”
“Has she a black frock in her sumptuous wardrobe?”—in bitter irony.
“A black frock?” Miss Amelia stammered again. “A black one?”
“She has frocks of every other color. Has she a black one?”
Miss Amelia began to turn pale.
“No—ye-es!” she said. “But it is too short for her. She has only the old black velvet, and she has outgrown it.”
“Go and tell her to take off that preposterous pink silk gauze, and put the black one on, whether it is too short or not. She has done with finery!”
Then Miss Amelia began to wring her fat hands and cry.
“Oh, sister!” she sniffed. “Oh, sister! What can have happened?”
Miss Minchin wasted no words.
“Captain Crewe is dead,” she said. “He has died without a penny. That spoiled, pampered, fanciful child is left a pauper on my hands.”
Miss Amelia sat down quite heavily in the nearest chair.
“Hundreds of pounds have I spent on nonsense for her. And I shall never see a penny of it. Put a stop to this ridiculous party of hers. Go and make her change her frock at once.”
“I?” panted Miss Amelia. “M-must I go and tell her now?”
“This moment!” was the fierce answer. “Don’t sit staring like a goose. Go!”
Poor Miss Amelia was accustomed to being called a goose. She knew, in fact, that she was rather a goose, and that it was left to geese to do a great many disagreeable things. It was a somewhat embarrassing thing to go into the midst of a room full of delighted children, and tell the giver of the feast that she had suddenly been transformed into a little beggar, and must go upstairs and put on an old black frock which was too small for her. But the thing must be done. This was evidently not the time when questions might be asked.
She rubbed her eyes with her handkerchief until they looked quite red. After which she got up and went out of the room, without venturing to say another word. When her older sister looked and spoke as she had done just now, the wisest course to pursue was to obey orders without any comment. Miss Minchin walked across the room. She spoke to herself aloud without knowing that she was doing it. During the last year the story of the diamond-mines had suggested all sorts of possibilities to her. Even proprietors of seminaries might make fortunes in stocks, with the aid of owners of mines. And now, instead of looking forward to gains, she was left to look back upon losses.
“The Princess Sara, indeed!” she said. “The child has been pampered as if she were a queen.”
She was sweeping angrily past the corner table as she said it, and the next moment she started at the sound of a loud, sobbing sniff which issued from under the cover.
“What is that!” she exclaimed angrily. The loud, sobbing sniff was heard again, and she stooped and raised the hanging folds of the table cover.
“How dare you!” she cried out. “How dare you! Come out immediately!”
It was poor Becky who crawled out, and her cap was knocked on one side, and her face was red with repressed crying.
“If you please, ‘m—it’s me, mum,” she explained. “I know I hadn’t ought to. But I was lookin’ at the doll, mum—an’ I was frightened when you come in—an’ slipped under the table.”
“You have been there all the time, listening,” said Miss Minchin.
“No, mum,” Becky protested, bobbing courtesies. “Not listenin’—I thought I could slip out without your noticin’, but I couldn’t an’ I had to stay. But I didn’t listen, mum—I wouldn’t for nothin’. But I couldn’t help hearin’.”
Suddenly it seemed almost as if she lost all fear of the awful lady before her. She burst into fresh tears.
“Oh, please, ‘m,” she said; “I dare say you’ll give me warnin, mumbut I’m so sorry for poor Miss Sara—I’m so sorry!”
“Leave the room!” ordered Miss Minchin.
Becky courtesied again, the tears openly streaming down her cheeks.
“Yes, ‘m; I will, ‘m,” she said, trembling; “but oh, I just wanted to arst you: Miss Sara—she’s been such a rich young lady, an’ she’s been waited on, ‘and and foot; an’ what will she do now, mum, without no maid? If—if, oh please, would you let me wait on her after I’ve done my pots an’ kettles? I’d do ’em that quick—if you’d let me wait on her now she’s poor. Oh,” breaking out afresh, “poor little Miss Sara, mum—that was called a princess.”
Somehow, she made Miss Minchin feel more angry than ever. That the very scullery-maid should range herself on the side of this child—whom she realized more fully than ever that she had never liked—was too much. She actually stamped her foot.
“No—certainly not,” she said. “She will wait on herself, and on other people, too. Leave the room this instant, or you’ll leave your place.”
Becky threw her apron over her head and fled. She ran out of the room and down the steps into the scullery, and there she sat down among her pots and kettles, and wept as if her heart would break.
“It’s exactly like the ones in the stories,” she wailed. “Them pore princess ones that was drove into the world.”
* * * * *
Miss Minchin had never looked quite so still and hard as she did when Sara came to her, a few hours later, in response to a message she had sent her.
Even by that time it seemed to Sara as if the birthday party had either been a dream or a thing which had happened years ago, and had happened in the life of quite another little girl.
Every sign of the festivities had been swept away; the holly had been removed from the school-room walls, and the forms and desks put back into their places. Miss Minchin’s sitting-room looked as it always did—all traces of the feast were gone, and Miss Minchin had resumed her usual dress. The pupils had been ordered to lay aside their party frocks; and this having been done, they had returned to the school-room and huddled together in groups, whispering and talking excitedly.
“Tell Sara to come to my room,” Miss Minchin had said to her sister. “And explain to her clearly that I will have no crying or unpleasant scenes.”
“Sister,” replied Miss Amelia, “she is the strangest child I ever saw. She has actually made no fuss at all. You remember she made none when Captain Crewe went back to India. When I told her what had happened, she just stood quite still and looked at me without making a sound. Her eyes seemed to get bigger and bigger, and she went quite pale. When I had finished, she still stood staring for a few seconds, and then her chin began to shake, and she turned round and ran out of the room and up-stairs. Several of the other children began to cry, but she did not seem to hear them or to be alive to anything but just what I was saying. It made me feel quite queer not to be answered; and when you tell anything sudden and strange, you expect people will say something—whatever it is.”
Nobody but Sara herself ever knew what had happened in her room after she had run up-stairs and locked her door. In fact, she herself scarcely remembered anything but that she walked up and down, saying over and over again to herself in a voice which did not seem her own:
“My papa is dead! My papa is dead!”
Once she stopped before Emily, who sat watching her from her chair, and cried out wildly:
“Emily! Do you hear? Do you hear—papa is dead? He is dead in India—thousands of miles away.”
When she came into Miss Minchin’s sitting room in answer to her summons, her face was white and her eyes had dark rings around them. Her mouth was set as if she did not wish it to reveal what she had suffered and was suffering. She did not look in the least like the rose-colored butterfly child who had flown about from one of her treasures to the other in the decorated school-room. She looked instead a strange, desolate, almost grotesque little figure.
She had put on, without Mariette’s help, the cast-aside black-velvet frock. It was too short and tight, and her slender legs looked long and thin, showing themselves from beneath the brief skirt. As she had not found a piece of black ribbon, her short, thick, black hair tumbled loosely about her face and contrasted strongly with its pallor. She held Emily tightly in one arm, and Emily was swathed in a piece of black material.
“Put down your doll,” said Miss Minchin. “What do you mean by bringing her here?”
“No,” Sara answered. “I will not put her down. She is all I have. My papa gave her to me.”
She had always made Miss Minchin feel secretly uncomfortable, and she did so now. She did not speak with rudeness so much as with a cold steadiness with which Miss Minchin felt it difficult to cope—perhaps because she knew she was doing a heartless and inhuman thing.
“You will have no time for dolls in future,” she said. “You will have to work and improve yourself and make yourself useful.”
Sara kept her big, strange eyes fixed on her, and said not a word.
“Everything will be very different now,” Miss Minchin went on. “I suppose Miss Amelia has explained matters to you.”
“Yes,” answered Sara. “My papa is dead. He left me no money. I am quite poor.”
“You are a beggar,” said Miss Minchin, her temper rising at the recollection of what all this meant. “It appears that you have no relations and no home, and no one to take care of you.”
For a moment the thin, pale little face twitched, but Sara again said nothing.
“What are you staring at?” demanded Miss Minchin, sharply. “Are you so stupid that you cannot understand? I tell you that you are quite alone in the world, and have no one to do anything for you, unless I choose to keep you here out of charity.”
“I understand,” answered Sara, in a low tone; and there was a sound as if she had gulped down something which rose in her throat. “I understand.”
“That doll,” cried Miss Minchin, pointing to the splendid birthday gift seated near—”that ridiculous doll, with all her nonsensical, extravagant things—I actually paid the bill for her!”
Sara turned her head toward the chair.
“The Last Doll,” she said. “The Last Doll.” And her little mournful voice had an odd sound.
“The Last Doll, indeed!” said Miss Minchin. “And she is mine, not yours. Everything you own is mine.”
“Please take it away from me, then,” said Sara. “I do not want it.”
If she had cried and sobbed and seemed frightened, Miss Minchin might almost have had more patience with her. She was a woman who liked to domineer and feel her power, and as she looked at Sara’s pale little steadfast face and heard her proud little voice, she quite felt as if her might was being set at naught.
“Don’t put on grand airs,” she said. “The time for that sort of thing is past. You are not a princess any longer. Your carriage and your pony will be sent away—your maid will be dismissed. You will wear your oldest and plainest clothes—your extravagant ones are no longer suited to your station. You are like Becky—you must work for your living.”
To her surprise, a faint gleam of light came into the child’s eyes—a shade of relief.
“Can I work?” she said. “If I can work it will not matter so much. What can I do?”
“You can do anything you are told,” was the answer. “You are a sharp child, and pick up things readily. If you make yourself useful I may let you stay here. You speak French well, and you can help with the younger children.”
“May I?” exclaimed Sara. “Oh, please let me! I know I can teach them. I like them, and they like me.”
“Don’t talk nonsense about people liking you,” said Miss Minchin. “You will have to do more than teach the little ones. You will run errands and help in the kitchen as well as in the school-room. If you don’t please me, you will be sent away. Remember that. Now go.”
Sara stood still just a moment, looking at her. In her young soul, she was thinking deep and strange things. Then she turned to leave the room.
“Stop!” said Miss Minchin. “Don’t you intend to thank me?”
Sara paused, and all the deep, strange thoughts surged up in her breast.
“What for?” she said.
“For my kindness to you,” replied Miss Minchin. “For my kindness in giving you a home.”
Sara made two or three steps toward her. Her thin little chest heaved up and down, and she spoke in a strange unchildishly fierce way.
“You are not kind,” she said. “You are not kind, and it is not a home.” And she had turned and run out of the room before Miss Minchin could stop her or do anything but stare after her with stony anger.
She went up the stairs slowly, but panting for breath and she held Emily tightly against her side.
“I wish she could talk,” she said to herself. “If she could speak—if she could speak!”
She meant to go to her room and lie down on the tiger-skin, with her cheek upon the great cat’s head, and look into the fire and think and think and think. But just before she reached the landing Miss Amelia came out of the door and closed it behind her, and stood before it, looking nervous and awkward. The truth was that she felt secretly ashamed of the thing she had been ordered to do.
“You—you are not to go in there,” she said.
“Not go in?” exclaimed Sara, and she fell back a pace.
“That is not your room now,” Miss Amelia answered, reddening a little.
Somehow, all at once, Sara understood. She realized that this was the beginning of the change Miss Minchin had spoken of.
“Where is my room?” she asked, hoping very much that her voice did not shake.
“You are to sleep in the attic next to Becky.”
Sara knew where it was. Becky had told her about it. She turned, and mounted up two flights of stairs. The last one was narrow, and covered with shabby strips of old carpet. She felt as if she were walking away and leaving far behind her the world in which that other child, who no longer seemed herself, had lived. This child, in her short, tight old frock, climbing the stairs to the attic, was quite a different creature.
When she reached the attic door and opened it, her heart gave a dreary little thump. Then she shut the door and stood against it and looked about her.
Yes, this was another world. The room had a slanting roof and was whitewashed. The whitewash was dingy and had fallen off in places. There was a rusty grate, an old iron bedstead, and a hard bed covered with a faded coverlet. Some pieces of furniture too much worn to be used down-stairs had been sent up. Under the skylight in the roof, which showed nothing but an oblong piece of dull gray sky, there stood an old battered red footstool. Sara went to it and sat down. She seldom cried. She did not cry now. She laid Emily across her knees and put her face down upon her and her arms around her, and sat there, her little black head resting on the black draperies, not saying one word, not making one sound.
And as she sat in this silence there came a low tap at the door—such a low, humble one that she did not at first hear it, and, indeed, was not roused until the door was timidly pushed open and a poor tear-smeared face appeared peeping round it. It was Becky’s face, and Becky had been crying furtively for hours and rubbing her eyes with her kitchen apron until she looked strange indeed.
“Oh, miss,” she said under her breath. “Might I—would you allow me—jest to come in?”
Sara lifted her head and looked at her. She tried to begin a smile, and somehow she could not. Suddenly—and it was all through the loving mournfulness of Becky’s streaming eyes—her face looked more like a child’s not so much too old for her years. She held out her hand and gave a little sob.
“Oh, Becky,” she said. “I told you we were just the same—only two little girls—just two little girls. You see how true it is. There’s no difference now. I’m not a princess anymore.”
Becky ran to her and caught her hand, and hugged it to her breast, kneeling beside her and sobbing with love and pain.
“Yes, miss, you are,” she cried, and her words were all broken. “Whats’ever ‘appens to you—whats’ever—you’d be a princess all the same—an’ nothin’ couldn’t make you nothin’ different.”