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A World of Girls: The Story of a School, Page 2

L. T. Meade

taught the childto say, "Thank God for making mother into a beautiful angel;" and whenNan asked what an angel was, and how the cosy mother she rememberedcould be turned into one, Hester was beguiled into a soft and tearfultalk, and she drew several lovely pictures of white-robed angels, untilthe little child was satisfied and said--

  "Me like that, Hetty--me'll be angel too, Hetty, same as mamma."

  These talks with Nan, however, did not come very often, and of late theyhad almost ceased, for Nan was only two and a half, and the strange sadfact remained that in three months she had almost forgotten her mother.

  Hester on her way to school this morning cried for some time, then shesat silent, her crape veil still down, and her eyes watching furtivelyher fellow-passengers. They consisted of two rather fidgety old ladies,who wrapped themselves in rugs, were very particular on the question ofhot bottles, and watched Hester in their turn with considerablecuriosity and interest. Presently one of them offered the little girl asandwich, which she was too proud or too shy to accept, although by thistime she was feeling extremely hungry.

  "You will, perhaps, prefer a cake, my dear?" said the good-naturedlittle old lady. "My sister Agnes has got some delicious queen-cakes inher basket--will you eat one?"

  Hester murmured a feeble assent, and the queen-cake did her so much goodthat she ventured to raise her crape veil and to look around her.

  "Ah, that is much better," said the first little old lady. "Come tothis side of the carriage, my love; we are just going to pass through alovely bit of country, and you will like to watch the view. See; if youplace yourself here, my sister Agnes's basket will be just at your feet,and you can help yourself to a queen-cake whenever you are so disposed."

  "Thank you," responded Hester, in a much more cheerful tone, for it wasreally quite impossible to keep up reserve with such a bright-lookinglittle old lady; "your queen-cakes are very nice, and I liked that one,but one is quite enough, thank you. It is Nan who is so particularlyfond of queen-cakes."

  "And who is Nan, my dear?" asked the sister to whom the queen-cakesspecially belonged.

  "She is my dear little baby sister," said Hester in a sorrowful tone.

  "Ah, and it was about her you were crying just now," said the firstlady, laying her hand on Hester's arm. "Never mind us, dear, we haveseen a great many tears--a great many. They are the way of the world.Women are born to them. As Kingsley says--`women must weep.' It wasquite natural that you should cry about your sweet little Nan, and Iwish we could send her some of these queen-cakes that you say she is sofond of. Are you going to be long away from her, love?"

  "Oh, yes, for months and months," said Hester. "I did not know," sheadded, "that it was such a common thing to cry. I never used to."

  "Ah, you have had other trouble, poor child," glancing at her deepmourning frock.

  "Yes, it is since then I have cried so often. Please, I would rathernot speak about it."

  "Quite right, my love, quite right," said Miss Agnes in a much briskertone than her sister. "We will turn the conversation now to somethinginspiriting. Jane is quite right, there are plenty of tears in theworld; but there is also a great deal of sunshine and heaps of laughter,merry laughter--the laughter of youth, my child. Now, I dare say,though you have begun your journey so sadly, that you are really boundon quite a pleasant little expedition. For instance, you are going tovisit a kind aunt, or some one else who will give you a delightfulwelcome."

  "No," said Hester, "I am not. I am going to a dreadful place, and thethought of that, and parting from little Nan, are the reasons why Icried. I am going to prison--I am, indeed."

  "Oh, my dear love!" exclaimed both the little old ladies in a breath.Then Miss Agnes continued: "You have really taken Jane's breath away--quite. Yes, Jane, I see that you are in for an attack of palpitation.Never mind her, dear, she palpitates very easily; but I think you mustbe mistaken, my love, in mentioning such an appalling word as `prison.'Yes, now I come to think of it, it is absolutely certain that you mustbe mistaken; for if you were going to such a terrible place ofpunishment you would be under the charge of a policeman. You are givento strong language, dear, like other young folk."

  "Well, I call it prison," continued Hester, who was rather flattered byall this bustle and Miss Jane's agitation; "it has a dreadful sound,hasn't it? I call it prison, but father says I am going to school--youcan't wonder that I am crying, can you? Oh! what is the matter?"

  For the two little old ladies jumped up at this juncture, and gave Hettya kiss apiece on her soft young lips.

  "My darling," they both exclaimed. "We are so relieved and delighted!your strong language startled us, and school is anything but what youimagine, dear. Ah, Jane! can you ever forget our happy days at school?"

  Miss Jane sighed and rolled up her eyes, and then the two commenced avigorous catechising of the little girl. Really, Hester could not helpfeeling almost sunshiny before that long journey came to an end, for sheand the Misses Bruce made some delightful discoveries. The little oldladies very quickly found out that they lived close to the school whereHetty was to spend the next few months. They knew Mrs Willis well--they knew the delightful rambling, old-fashioned house where Hester wasto live--they even knew two or three of the scholars: and they said sooften to the little girl that she was going into a life of clover--positive clover--that she began to smile, and even partly to believethem.

  "I am glad I shall be near you, at least," she said at last, with afrank sweet smile, for she had greatly taken to her kindfellow-travellers.

  "Yes, my dear," exclaimed Miss Jane. "We attend the same church, and Ishall look out for you on Sunday, and," she continued, glancing first ather sister and then addressing Hester, "perhaps Mrs Willis will allowyou to visit us occasionally."

  "I'll come to-morrow, if you like," said Hester.

  "Well, dear, well--that must be as Mrs Willis thinks best. Ah, here weare at Sefton at last. We shall look out for you in church on Sunday,my love."



  Hester's journey had really proved wonderfully agreeable. She had takena great fancy to the little old ladies who had fussed over her and madethemselves pleasant in her behalf. She felt herself something like aheroine as she poured out a little, just a little, of her troubles intotheir sympathising ears; and their cheerful remarks with regard toschool and school-life had caused her to see clearly that there might beanother and a brighter side to the gloomy picture she had drawn withregard to her future.

  But during the drive of two and a half miles from Sefton to LavenderHouse, Hester once more began to feel anxious and troubled. The MissesBruce had gone off with some other passengers in a little omnibus totheir small villa in the town, but Lavender House was some distance off,and the little omnibus never went so far.

  An old-fashioned carriage, which the ladies told Hester belonged to MrsWillis, had been sent to meet her, and a man whom the Misses Bruceaddressed as "Thomas" helped to place her trunk and a small portmanteauon the roof of the vehicle. The little girl had to take her drivealone, and the rather ancient horse which drew the old carriage climbedup and down the steep roads in a most leisurely fashion. It was a coldwinter's day, and by the time Thomas had executed some commissions inSefton, and had reached the gates of the avenue which led to LavenderHouse, it was very nearly dark. Hester trembled at the darkness, andwhen the gates were shut behind them by a rosy-faced urchin of ten, sheonce more began to feel the cruel and desolate idea that she was goingto prison.

  They drove slowly down a long and winding avenue, and, although Hestercould not see, she knew they must be passing under trees, for severaltimes their branches made a noise against the roof of the carriage. Atlast they came to a standstill. The old servant scrambled slowly downfrom his seat on the box, and, opening the carriage-door, held out hishand to help the little stranger to alight.

  "Come now, missy," he said in cheering tones, "come out, and you'll bewarm and snug in a minute. D
ear, dear! I expect you're nearly frozeup, poor little miss, and it _is_ a most bitter cold night."

  He rang a bell which hung by the entrance of a deep porch, and the nextmoment the wide hall door was flung open by a neat maid-servant, andHester stepped within.

  "She's come," exclaimed several voices in different keys, and proceedingapparently from different quarters. Hester looked around her in ahalf-startled way, but she could see no one, except the maid, who smiledat her and said--

  "Welcome to Lavender House, miss. If you'll step into the porter's roomfor one moment, there is a good fire there, and I'll acquaint MissDanesbury that you have arrived."

  The little room in question was at the right-hand side of a very wideand cheerful hall, which was decorated in pale tints of green, and had ahandsome encaustic-tiled floor. A blazing fire and two lamps made thehall look cheerful, but Hester was very glad to take refuge from theunknown voices in the porter's small room. She found herself quitetrembling with shyness, and cold, and an indescribable longing to getback to Nan; and as she waited for Miss Danesbury and wondered fearfullywho or what Miss Danesbury was, she scarcely derived any comfort fromthe blazing fire near which she stood.

  "Rather tall for her age, but I fear, I greatly fear, a little sulky,"said a voice behind her; and when she turned round in an agony oftrepidation and terror, she suddenly found herself face to face with atall, kind-looking, middle-aged lad and also with a bright gipsy-lookinggirl.

  "Annie Forest, how very naughty of you to hide behind the door! You areguilty of disobedience in coming into the room without leave. I mustreport you, my dear; yes, I really must. You lose two good conductmarks for this, and will probably have thirty lines in addition to yourusual quantity of French poetry."

  "But she won't tell on me, she won't, dear old Danesbury," said thegirl; "she couldn't be so hard-hearted, the precious love, particularlyas curiosity happens to be one of her own special little virtues! Takea kiss, Danesbury, and now, a you love me you'll be merciful!" The girlflitted away, and Miss Danesbury turned to Hester, whose face hadchanged from red to pale during this little scene.

  "What a horrid, vulgar, low-bred girl!" she exclaimed with passion, forin all the experiences of her short life Hester had never even imaginedthat personal remarks could be made of any one in their very presence."I hope she'll get a lot of punishment--I hope you are not going toforgive her," she continued, for her anger had for the time quiteovercome her shyness.

  "Oh, my dear, my dear! we should all be forgiving," exclaimed MissDanesbury in her gentle voice. "Welcome to Lavender House, love; I amsorry I was not in the hall to receive you. Had I been, this little_rencontre_ would not have occurred. Annie Forest meant no harm,however--she's a wild little sprite, but affectionate. You and she willbe the best friends possible by-and-by. Now, let me take you to yourroom; the gong for tea will sound in exactly five minutes, and I am sureyou will be glad of something to eat."

  Miss Danesbury then led Hester across the hall and up some broad, low,thickly-carpeted stairs. When they had ascended two flights, and werestanding on a handsome landing, she paused.

  "Do you see this baize door, dear?" she said. "This is the entrance tothe school part of the house. This part that we are now in belongsexclusively to Mrs Willis, and the girls are never allowed to come herewithout leave. All the school-life is lived at the other side of thisbaize door, and a very happy life I assure you it is for those littlegirls who make up their minds to be brave and good. Now kiss me, mydear, and let me bid you welcome once again to Lavender House."

  "Are you our principal teacher, then?" asked Hester.

  "I? oh dear, no, my love. I teach the younger children English, and Ilook after the interests and comforts of all. I am a very useful sortof person, I believe, and I have a motherly heart, dear, and it is a waywith little girls to come to me when they are in trouble. Now, my love,we must not chatter any longer. Take my hand, and let us get to yourroom as fast as possible."

  Miss Danesbury pushed open the baize door, and instantly Hester foundherself in a different region. Mrs Willis's part of the house gave theimpression of warmth, luxuriance, and even elegance of arrangement. Atthe other side of the door were long, narrow corridors, with snow-white,but carpetless floors, and rather cold, distempered walls. MissDanesbury, holding the new pupil's hand, led her down two corridors, andpast a great number of shut doors, behind which Hester could nearsuppressed laughter and eager, chattering voices. At last, however,they stopped at a door which had the number "32" written over it.

  "This is your bedroom, dear," said the English teacher, "and to-nightyou will not be sorry to have it alone. Mrs Willis received a telegramfrom Susan Drummond, your room-mate, this afternoon, and she will notarrive until to-morrow."

  However bare and even cold the corridors looked, the bedroom into whichHester was ushered by no means corresponded with this appearance. Itwas a small, but daintily-furnished little room. The floor was carpetedwith green felt, the one window was hung with pretty draperies, and twolittle, narrow, white beds were arranged gracefully with Frenchcanopies. All the furniture in the room was of a minute description,but good of its kind. Beside each bed stood a mahogany chest ofdrawers. At two corresponding corners were marble washhand-stands, andeven two pretty, toilet tables stood side by side in the recess of thewindow. But the sight that perhaps pleased Hester most was a smallbright fire which burnt in the grate.

  "Now, dear, this is your room. As you have arrived first you can chooseyour own bed and your own chest of drawers. Ah, that is right, Ellenhas unfastened your portmanteau; she will unpack your trunk to-night,and take it to the box-room. Now, dear, smooth your hair and wash yourhands. The gong will sound instantly. I will come for you when itdoes."



  Miss Danesbury, true to her word, came to fetch Hester down to tea.They went down some broad carpetless stairs, along a wide stone hall,and then paused for an instant at a half-open door from which a streamof eager voices issued.

  "I will introduce you to your school-fellows, and I hope your futurefriends," said Miss Danesbury. "After tea you will come with me to seeMrs Willis--she is never in the school-room at tea-time. Mdlle.Perier or Miss Good usually superintends. Now, my dear, come along--why, surely you are not frightened?"

  "Oh, please, may I sit near you?" asked Hester.

  "No, my love; I take care of the little ones, and they are at a table bythemselves. Now, come in at once--the moment you dread will soon beover, and it is nothing, my love--really nothing."

  Nothing! never, as long as Hester lived, did she forget the supremeagony of terror and shyness which came over her as she entered thatlong, low, brightly-lighted room. The forty pairs of curious eyes whichwere raised inquisitively to her face became as torturing as fortyburning suns. She felt an almost uncontrollable desire to run away andhide--she wondered if she could possibly keep from screaming aloud. Inthe end she found herself, she scarcely knew how, seated beside agentle, sweet-mannered girl, and munching bread and butter which tasteddrier than sawdust, and occasionally trying to sip something very hotand scalding which she vaguely understood went by the name of tea. Thebuzzing voices all chattering eagerly in French, and the occasionalsharp, high-pitched reprimands coming in peremptory tones from the thinlips of Mdlle. Perier, sounded far off and distant--her head was dizzy,her eyes swam--the tired and shy child endured tortures.

  In after-days, in long after-years when the memory of Lavender House wasto come back to Hetty Thornton as one of the sweetest, brightestepisodes in her existence--in the days when she was to know almost everyblade of grass in the gardens, and to be familiar with each corner ofthe old house, with each face which now appeared so strange, she mightwonder at her feelings to-night, but never even then could she forgetthem.

  She sat at the table in a dream, trying to eat the tasteless bread andbutter. Suddenly and swiftly the thick and somewhat stale
piece ofbread on her plate was exchanged for a thin, fresh, and delicately-cutslice.

  "Eat that," whispered a voice--"I know the other is horrid. It's ashame of Perier to give such stuff to a stranger."

  "Mdlle. Cecile, you are transgressing: you are talking English," camein a torrent of rapid French from the head of the table. "You lose aconduct mark, ma'amselle."

  The young girl who sat next Hester inclined her head gently andsubmissively, and Hester, venturing to glance at her, saw that adelicate pink had spread itself over her pale face. She was a plaingirl; but even Hester, in this first moment of terror, could scarcelyhave been afraid of her, so benign was her expression, so sweet theglance from her soft, full brown eyes. Hester now further observed thatthe thin bread and butter had been removed from Cecil's own plate. Shebegan to wonder why this girl was indulged with better food than therest of her comrades.

  Hester was beginning to feel a little less shy, and was taking one ortwo furtive glances at her companions, when she suddenly felt herselfturning crimson, and all her agony of shyness and dislike to herschool-life returning. She encountered the full, bright, quizzical gazeof the girl who had made personal remarks about her in the porter'sroom. The merry black eyes of this gipsy maiden fairly twinkled withsuppressed fun when they met hers, and the bright head even noddedaudaciously across the table to her.

  Not for worlds would Hester return this friendly