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Girls of the True Blue, Page 2

L. T. Meade



  But she only went as far as the landing; there she crouched down in acorner and waited. She did not know what she feared, nor exactly whatwas going to happen; it seemed to her that there was a great darknesseverywhere, and that it pressed her round and shut away the light.

  The outward circumstances of Nan Esterleigh's life had never been toobright, but all the same she had been a happy little girl; she hadbeen petted and fussed about and loved, and her battered doll, SophiaMaria, had been the greatest imaginable comfort to her. She was quiteaccustomed to scanty meals and poor rooms and cross landladies. Shewas, alas! too, poor little girl, thoroughly accustomed to hermother's state of miserable health. Mother had been often as badbefore. Ever since Nan could remember, her mother had ached andshivered and moaned with pain; she had spent restless nights, and hadstayed in bed to breakfast, and had struggled against the illnesswhich crept on her more and more day by day. Nan in her heart ofhearts supposed that very few people were well; she thought childrenenjoyed good health as a rule, and that grown people had illness. Itwas the law of life, she supposed. Now and then she confided herthoughts to Sophia Maria.

  "My darling," she used to say, "you must be as happy as you can whileyou are young, because there is no chance at all when you aregrown-up. You will have pains then, Maria, and aches, and you willgrow old, and you won't have any strength. I'll be the same; there'llbe two of us to keep each other company--that is one comfort."

  Now she crouched in the corner, feeling a little more depressed and alittle more anxious than usual, but not really alarmed or stricken orsubdued. She wondered, however, what her mother meant by the curiouswords she had spoken, with long pauses between, to Mrs. Richmond. Theycertainly pointed to a future for Nan herself; she was to gosomewhere, and if all was not well she was at the end of a year to gosomewhere else.

  "But I am not going to leave my own mother," thought the little girl."Oh dear! oh dear! I know now why I am lonely; I want my poor darlingSophia."

  She ran downstairs, clasped her doll to her heart, and crouching overthe fire, presently fell asleep.

  It was during Nan Esterleigh's sleep that her mother died. Mrs.Esterleigh died without a pang or a struggle--she just ceased tobreathe; and Mrs. Richmond, with tears in her eyes, came downstairs.

  Nan had stretched herself full length on the hearth-rug. The doll wasclasped to her breast; her sallow little face looked more sallow thanusual, and Mrs. Richmond noticed how black and long were the lashesthat rested against her cheeks.

  "Poor little girl, she is my care now," thought the good woman. "Iknow what I should like to do; I should like to pick her up, and wrapa shawl round her, and take her right away in the cab with me. Norawill be nice to her, and Kitty will show her her favourite kittens. Ihave a great mind to try."

  But just then the big black eyes were opened wide, and Nan sat up andstared at Mrs. Richmond.

  "What are you doing here?" she said. "Is mother no better? Has nobodythought of giving her her tea?"

  "Come here, Nancy," said Mrs. Richmond. "I have something I want to sayto you."

  "But I don't want to listen," answered Nan; and she clutched her dolltightly in her embrace, staggered to her feet, and stood, withdefiance in her eyes, a few feet away from Mrs. Richmond.

  "Dear, dear! she is an extraordinary child," thought the good lady."She will be very difficult to manage. I should not be a scrapsurprised if she felt this very much; some children do, and I shouldnot be astonished if she was the sort, she is so stubborn andself-contained--not a pleasant child by any means. But Amy's littlegirl shall always have a warm corner in my heart--always, always."

  "Come here, Nan," she said again.

  "If you want to say anything to me, please, Mrs. Richmond, be quick,"said Nan, who was now wide awake and felt absolutely composed; "I mustgo up to mother. This is the hour for her tea; I always make it myselffor her. I know just how much she wants put into the little brownteapot, and the right quantity of milk and sugar; and, oh! I am goingto toast her bread for her, for Mrs. Vincent does send it up so hardand untempting. Perhaps you will come another day, Mrs. Richmond, andtalk to me then."

  "I must talk to you now, Nancy, my poor little girl; I have somethingto say."

  Curious emotions stirred in the child's breast. She stood quite stillfor a moment; then she said slowly:

  "You had better not say it."

  "I must; it is about your mother."

  "What! is mother worse?"

  "She is better, Nancy." Mrs. Richmond's eyes brimmed over with tears.

  "Then how silly of you to cry!" said the child, her face brighteningup, and smiles dawning round her lips. "If she was worse you mightcry--not that you ought ever to cry, for she is no relation of yours;but if she is better, Sophia Maria and I will sing."

  "Nancy dear, I cannot break it to you. I must tell it to you at once,and God help you to bear it. Your mother is better in one sense--inthe sense that God has taken her away from all her pains. She won'tever be tired or ill or sorry any more, and she will never again haveaches or wakeful nights or sad days; she has gone to God. There is abeautiful heaven, you know, Nan, and---- Oh, good gracious! what ailsthe child?"

  Nan had given one smothered scream and had rushed from the room.Fast--very fast--did the little feet run upstairs. Mrs. Esterleigh'sroom was on the third floor. Past the drawing-room landing she ran,where a good-natured-looking old gentleman resided. He was coming outof his comfortable drawing-room, and he saw the scared little face. Heknew, of course, what had happened, and he wondered if the child knew.He called to her:

  "Nancy, come in and sit by my fire for a little."

  But she did not heed him. She ran past the second floor; no one calledher here or detained her. There was a very cross old maid who lived onthat floor, and Nancy had always hated her. She ran on and on.Presently she reached her mother's room.

  "It is not true," she gasped. "It is that dreadful Mrs. Richmond tryingto frighten me. It is not a bit true--not a bit." And then she tookthe handle and tried to turn it and to open the door, but the door waslocked.

  "Mother, mother!" she shrieked. "Mother, it is me--it is Nan. Don'tlet them keep me out. Get some one to open the door. Mother, mother!"

  Footsteps sounded in the room, and an elderly woman, whom Nancy hadnever seen before, opened the door, came quickly out, and stood withher back to it.

  "You must go away, my dear little girl," she said. "I will bring youto see your mother presently. Go away now, dear; you cannot come in."

  "But I will. You shall not keep me out. You are hurting mother. Youhave no right to be in the room with her;" and Nancy pommelled at thewoman's hands and arms. But she was strong and masterful, andpresently she picked up the exhausted child and carried her rightdownstairs.

  "Oh! give her to me," said Mrs. Richmond. "Poor little child! Nancydear, I am so sorry for you! And I promise, darling, to be a mother toyou."

  "Don't!" said Nan. "I don't want you as a mother--no, I don't wantyou."

  "Never mind, I will be a friend to you--an aunt--anything you like. Ihave promised your own dear mother; and she is quite well, and itwould be selfish to wish her back."

  "But I want to be selfish; I want to have her back," said Nan. "Idon't believe that God has come and taken her. He would not takemother and leave me; it is not likely, is it?"

  "God sometimes does so, and He has His wise reasons."

  "I don't believe it. You only want me not to go to her, and you aretelling me lies."

  "It is the truth, Nancy; and I wish for your sake it were not. Willyou come back with me to-night, dear?"

  "I won't. I won't ever go to you. I will always stay just outsidemother's door until they let me in. I do not believe she is dead--no,not for a moment."

  In vain Mrs. Richmond argued and pleaded and coaxed; Nan was firm.Presently the good lady had to consult with Mrs. Vincent, who promisedto look after the child. The landlady was now all t
ears andgood-nature, and she assured Mrs. Richmond that Nan should have all herwants attended to.

  "I have got a very nice, good-natured servant-girl," she said. "Hername is Phoebe. I will send her upstairs, and she shall sit in theroom with Miss Nan, and if necessary stay with her to-night."

  "Very well," said Mrs. Richmond. "It is the best that I can do; but, ohdear! how anxious I feel about the unhappy child!"