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I Say No

Wilkie Collins

  Produced by James Rusk

  "I SAY NO"

  By Wilkie Collins



  Outside the bedroom the night was black and still.

  The small rain fell too softly to be heard in the garden; not a leafstirred in the airless calm; the watch-dog was asleep, the cats wereindoors; far or near, under the murky heaven, not a sound was stirring.

  Inside the bedroom the night was black and still.

  Miss Ladd knew her business as a schoolmistress too well to allownight-lights; and Miss Ladd's young ladies were supposed to be fastasleep, in accordance with the rules of the house. Only at intervals thesilence was faintly disturbed, when the restless turning of one ofthe girls in her bed betrayed itself by a gentle rustling between thesheets. In the long intervals of stillness, not even the softly audiblebreathing of young creatures asleep was to be heard.

  The first sound that told of life and movement revealed the mechanicalmovement of the clock. Speaking from the lower regions, the tongue ofFather Time told the hour before midnight.

  A soft voice rose wearily near the door of the room. It counted thestrokes of the clock--and reminded one of the girls of the lapse oftime.

  "Emily! eleven o'clock."

  There was no reply. After an interval the weary voice tried again, inlouder tones:


  A girl, whose bed was at the inner end of the room, sighed underthe heavy heat of the night--and said, in peremptory tones, "Is thatCecilia?"


  "What do you want?"

  "I'm getting hungry, Emily. Is the new girl asleep?"

  The new girl answered promptly and spitefully, "No, she isn't."

  Having a private object of their own in view, the five wise virgins ofMiss Ladd's first class had waited an hour, in wakeful anticipationof the falling asleep of the stranger--and it had ended in this way!A ripple of laughter ran round the room. The new girl, mortified andoffended, entered her protest in plain words.

  "You are treating me shamefully! You all distrust me, because I am astranger."

  "Say we don't understand you," Emily answered, speaking for herschoolfellows; "and you will be nearer the truth."

  "Who expected you to understand me, when I only came here to-day? I havetold you already my name is Francine de Sor. If want to know more, I'mnineteen years old, and I come from the West Indies."

  Emily still took the lead. "Why do you come _here?_" she asked. "Whoever heard of a girl joining a new school just before the holidays? Youare nineteen years old, are you? I'm a year younger than you--and I havefinished my education. The next big girl in the room is a year youngerthan me--and she has finished her education. What can you possibly haveleft to learn at your age?"

  "Everything!" cried the stranger from the West Indies, with an outburstof tears. "I'm a poor ignorant creature. Your education ought to havetaught you to pity me instead of making fun of me. I hate you all. Forshame, for shame!"

  Some of the girls laughed. One of them--the hungry girl who had countedthe strokes of the clock--took Francine's part.

  "Never mind their laughing, Miss de Sor. You are quite right, you havegood reason to complain of us."

  Miss de Sor dried her eyes. "Thank you--whoever you are," she answeredbriskly.

  "My name is Cecilia Wyvil," the other proceeded. "It was not, perhaps,quite nice of you to say you hated us all. At the same time we haveforgotten our good breeding--and the least we can do is to beg yourpardon."

  This expression of generous sentiment appeared to have an irritatingeffect on the peremptory young person who took the lead in the room.Perhaps she disapproved of free trade in generous sentiment.

  "I can tell you one thing, Cecilia," she said; "you shan't beat ME ingenerosity. Strike a light, one of you, and lay the blame on me if MissLadd finds us out. I mean to shake hands with the new girl--and how canI do it in the dark? Miss de Sor, my name's Brown, and I'm queen of thebedroom. I--not Cecilia--offer our apologies if we have offended you.Cecilia is my dearest friend, but I don't allow her to take the lead inthe room. Oh, what a lovely nightgown!"

  The sudden flow of candle-light had revealed Francine, sitting up in herbed, and displaying such treasures of real lace over her bosom thatthe queen lost all sense of royal dignity in irrepressible admiration."Seven and sixpence," Emily remarked, looking at her own night-gown anddespising it. One after another, the girls yielded to the attraction ofthe wonderful lace. Slim and plump, fair and dark, they circled roundthe new pupil in their flowing white robes, and arrived by commonconsent at one and the same conclusion: "How rich her father must be!"

  Favored by fortune in the matter of money, was this enviable personpossessed of beauty as well?

  In the disposition of the beds, Miss de Sor was placed between Ceciliaon the right hand, and Emily on the left. If, by some fantastic turn ofevents, a man--say in the interests of propriety, a married doctor, withMiss Ladd to look after him--had been permitted to enter the room, andhad been asked what he thought of the girls when he came out, he wouldnot even have mentioned Francine. Blind to the beauties of the expensivenight-gown, he would have noticed her long upper lip, her obstinatechin, her sallow complexion, her eyes placed too close together--andwould have turned his attention to her nearest neighbors. On one sidehis languid interest would have been instantly roused by Cecilia'sglowing auburn hair, her exquisitely pure skin, and her tender blueeyes. On the other, he would have discovered a bright little creature,who would have fascinated and perplexed him at one and the same time. Ifhe had been questioned about her by a stranger, he would have been ata loss to say positively whether she was dark or light: he would haveremembered how her eyes had held him, but he would not have known ofwhat color they were. And yet, she would have remained a vivid picturein his memory when other impressions, derived at the same time, hadvanished. "There was one little witch among them, who was worth all therest put together; and I can't tell you why. They called her Emily. IfI wasn't a married man--" There he would have thought of his wife, andwould have sighed and said no more.

  While the girls were still admiring Francine, the clock struck thehalf-hour past eleven.

  Cecilia stole on tiptoe to the door--looked out, and listened--closedthe door again--and addressed the meeting with the irresistible charm ofher sweet voice and her persuasive smile.

  "Are none of you hungry yet?" she inquired. "The teachers are safe intheir rooms; we have set ourselves right with Francine. Why keep thesupper waiting under Emily's bed?"

  Such reasoning as this, with such personal attractions to recommendit, admitted of but one reply. The queen waved her hand graciously, andsaid, "Pull it out."

  Is a lovely girl--whose face possesses the crowning charm of expression,whose slightest movement reveals the supple symmetry of her figure--lesslovely because she is blessed with a good appetite, and is not ashamedto acknowledge it? With a grace all her own, Cecilia dived underthe bed, and produced a basket of jam tarts, a basket of fruit andsweetmeats, a basket of sparkling lemonade, and a superb cake--allpaid for by general subscriptions, and smuggled into the room by kindconnivance of the servants. On this occasion, the feast was especiallyplentiful and expensive, in commemoration not only of the arrival of theMidsummer holidays, but of the coming freedom of Miss Ladd's two leadingyoung ladies. With widely different destinies before them, Emily andCecilia had completed their school life, and were now to go out into theworld.

  The contrast in the characters of the two girls showed itself, even insuch a trifle as the preparations for supper.

  Gentle Cecilia, sitting on the floor surrounded by good things, left itto the ingenuity of others to decide whether the baskets should be allemptied at once, or handed round from bed
to bed, one at a time. In themeanwhile, her lovely blue eyes rested tenderly on the tarts.

  Emily's commanding spirit seized on the reins of government, andemployed each of her schoolfellows in the occupation which she wasfittest to undertake. "Miss de Sor, let me look at your hand. Ah! Ithought so. You have got the thickest wrist among us; you shall drawthe corks. If you let the lemonade pop, not a drop of it goes down yourthroat. Effie, Annis, Priscilla, you are three notoriously lazy girls;it's doing you a true kindness to set you to work. Effie, clear thetoilet-table for supper; away with the combs, the brushes, and thelooking-glass. Annis, tear the leaves out of your book of exercises, andset them out for plates. No! I'll unpack; nobody touches the baskets butme. Priscilla, you have the prettiest ears in the room. You shall act assentinel, my dear, and listen at the door. Cecilia, when you have donedevouring those tarts with your eyes, take that pair of scissors (Missde Sor, allow me to apologize for the mean manner in which this schoolis carried on; the knives and forks are counted and locked up everynight)--I say take that pair of scissors, Cecilia, and carve the cake,and don't keep the largest bit for yourself. Are we all ready? Verywell. Now take example by me. Talk as much as you like, so long as youdon't talk too loud. There is one other thing before we begin. The menalways propose toasts on these occasions; let's be like the men. Can anyof you make a speech? Ah, it falls on me as usual. I propose the firsttoast. Down with all schools and teachers--especially the new teacher,who came this half year. Oh, mercy, how it stings!" The fixed gas in thelemonade took the orator, at that moment, by the throat, and effectuallychecked the flow of her eloquence. It made no difference to the girls.Excepting the ease of feeble stomachs, who cares for eloquence inthe presence of a supper-table? There were no feeble stomachs in thatbedroom. With what inexhaustible energy Miss Ladd's young ladies ateand drank! How merrily they enjoyed the delightful privilege of talkingnonsense! And--alas! alas!--how vainly they tried, in after life, torenew the once unalloyed enjoyment of tarts and lemonade!

  In the unintelligible scheme of creation, there appears to be nohuman happiness--not even the happiness of schoolgirls--which is evercomplete. Just as it was drawing to a close, the enjoyment of the feastwas interrupted by an alarm from the sentinel at the door.

  "Put out the candle!" Priscilla whispered "Somebody on the stairs."