None of Miss Minchin's young ladies were very remarkable for being brilliant; they were select, but some of them were very dull, and some of them were fond of applying themselves to their lessons. Sara, who snatched her lessons at all sorts of untimely hours from tattered and discarded books, and who had a hungry craving for everything readable, was often severe upon them in her small mind. They had books they never read; she had no books at all. If she had always had something to read, she would not have been so lonely. She liked romances and history and poetry; she would read anything. There was a sentimental housemaid in the establishment who bought the weekly penny papers, and subscribed to a circulating library, from which she got greasy volumes containing stories of marquises and dukes who invariably fell in love with orange-girls and gypsies and servant-maids, and made them the proud brides of coronets; and Sara often did parts of this maid's work so that she might earn the privilege of reading these romantic histories. There was also a fat, dull pupil, whose name was Ermengarde St. John, who was one of her resources. Ermengarde had an intellectual father, who, in his despairing desire to encourage his daughter, constantly sent her valuable and interesting books, which were a continual source of grief to her. Sara had once actually found her crying over a big package of them.
"What is the matter with you?" she asked her, perhaps rather disdainfully.
And it is just possible she would not have spoken to her, if she had not seen the books. The sight of books always gave Sara a hungry feeling, and she could not help drawing near to them if only to read their titles.
"What is the matter with you?" she asked.
"My papa has sent me some more books," answered Ermengarde woefully, "and he expects me to read them."
"Don't you like reading?" said Sara.
"I hate it!" replied Miss Ermengarde St. John. "And he will ask me questions when he sees me: he will want to know how much I remember; how would you like to have to read all those?"
"I'd like it better than anything else in the world," said Sara.
Ermengarde wiped her eyes to look at such a prodigy.
"Oh, gracious!" she exclaimed.
Sara returned the look with interest. A sudden plan formed itself in her sharp mind.
"Look here!" she said. "If you'll lend me those books, I'll read them and tell you everything that's in them afterward, and I'll tell it to you so that you will remember it. I know I can. The A B C children always remember what I tell them."
"Oh, goodness!" said Ermengarde. "Do you think you could?"
"I know I could," answered Sara. "I like to read, and I always remember. I'll take care of the books, too; they will look just as new as they do now, when I give them back to you."
Ermengarde put her handkerchief in her pocket.
"If you'll do that," she said, "and if you'll make me remember, I'll give you—I'll give you some money."
"I don't want your money," said Sara. "I want your books—I want them." And her eyes grew big and queer, and her chest heaved once.
"Take them, then," said Ermengarde; "I wish I wanted them, but I am not clever, and my father is, and he thinks I ought to be."
Sara picked up the books and marched off with them. But when she was at the door, she stopped and turned around.
"What are you going to tell your father?" she asked.
"Oh," said Ermengarde, "he needn't know; he'll think I've read them."
Sara looked down at the books; her heart really began to beat fast.
"I won't do it," she said rather slowly, "if you are going to tell him lies about it—I don't like lies. Why can't you tell him I read them and then told you about them?"
"But he wants me to read them," said Ermengarde.
"He wants you to know what is in them," said Sara; "and if I can tell it to you in an easy way and make you remember, I should think he would like that."
"He would like it better if I read them myself," replied Ermengarde.
"He will like it, I dare say, if you learn anything in any way," said Sara. "I should, if I were your father."
And though this was not a flattering way of stating the case, Ermengarde was obliged to admit it was true, and, after a little more argument, gave in. And so she used afterward always to hand over her books to Sara, and Sara would carry them to her garret and devour them; and after she had read each volume, she would return it and tell Ermengarde about it in a way of her own. She had a gift for making things interesting. Her imagination helped her to make everything rather like a story, and she managed this matter so well that Miss St. John gained more information from her books than she would have gained if she had read them three times over by her poor stupid little self. When Sara sat down by her and began to tell some story of travel or history, she made the travellers and historical people seem real; and Ermengarde used to sit and regard her dramatic gesticulations, her thin little flushed cheeks, and her shining, odd eyes with amazement.
"It sounds nicer than it seems in the book," she would say. "I never cared about Mary, Queen of Scots, before, and I always hated the French Revolution, but you make it seem like a story."
"It is a story," Sara would answer. "They are all stories. Everything is a story—everything in this world. You are a story—I am a story—Miss Minchin is a story. You can make a story out of anything."
"I can't," said Ermengarde.
Sara stared at her a minute reflectively.
"No," she said at last. "I suppose you couldn't. You are a little like Emily."
"Who is Emily?"
Sara recollected herself. She knew she was sometimes rather impolite in the candor of her remarks, and she did not want to be impolite to a girl who was not unkind—only stupid. Notwithstanding all her sharp little ways she had the sense to wish to be just to everybody. In the hours she spent alone, she used to argue out a great many curious questions with herself. One thing she had decided upon was, that a person who was clever ought to be clever enough not to be unjust or deliberately unkind to any one. Miss Minchin was unjust and cruel, Miss Amelia was unkind and spiteful, the cook was malicious and hasty-tempered—they all were stupid, and made her despise them, and she desired to be as unlike them as possible. So she would be as polite as she could to people who in the least deserved politeness.
"Emily is—a person—I know," she replied.
"Do you like her?" asked Ermengarde.
"Yes, I do," said Sara.
Ermengarde examined her queer little face and figure again. She did look odd. She had on, that day, a faded blue plush skirt, which barely covered her knees, a brown Cloth sacque, and a pair of olive-green stockings which Miss Minchin had made her piece out with black ones, so that they would be long enough to be kept on. And yet Ermengarde was beginning slowly to admire her. Such a forlorn, thin, neglected little thing as that, who could read and read and remember and tell you things so that they did not tire you all out! A child who could speak French, and who had learned German, no one knew how! One could not help staring at her and feeling interested, particularly one to whom the simplest lesson was a trouble and a woe.
"Do you like me?" said Ermengarde, finally, at the end of her scrutiny.
Sara hesitated one second, then she answered:
"I like you because you are not ill-natured—I like you for letting me read your books—I like you because you don't make spiteful fun of me for what I can't help. It's not your fault that—"
She pulled herself up quickly. She had been going to say, "that you are stupid."
"That what?" asked Ermengarde.
"That you can't learn things quickly. If you can't, you can't. If I can, why, I can—that's all." She paused a minute, looking at the plump face before her, and then, rather slowly, one of her wise, old-fashioned thoughts came to her.
"Perhaps," she said, "to be able to learn things quickly isn't everything. To be kind is worth a good deal to other people. If Miss Minchin knew everything on earth, which she doesn't, and if she was like what she is now, she'd still be a detestable thing, and everybody would hate her. Lots of clever people have done harm and been wicked. Look at Robespierre—"
She stopped again and examined her companion's countenance.
"Do you remember about him?" she demanded. "I believe you've forgotten."
"Well, I don't remember all of it," admitted Ermengarde.
"Well," said Sara, with courage and determination, "I'll tell it to you over again."
And she plunged once more into the gory records of the French Revolution, and told such stories of it, and made such vivid pictures of its horrors, that Miss St. John was afraid to go to bed afterward, and hid her head under the blankets when she did go, and shivered until she fell asleep. But afterward she preserved lively recollections of the character of Robespierre, and did not even forget Marie Antoinette and the Princess de Lamballe.
"You know they put her head on a pike and danced around it," Sara had said; "and she had beautiful blonde hair; and when I think of her, I never see her head on her body, but always on a pike, with those furious people dancing and howling."
Yes, it was true; to this imaginative child everything was a story; and the more books she read, the more imaginative she became. One of her chief entertainments was to sit in her garret, or walk about it, and "suppose" things. On a cold night, when she had not had enough to eat, she would draw the red footstool up before the empty grate, and say in the most intense voice:
"Suppose there was a grate, wide steel grate here, and a great glowing fire—a glowing fire—with beds of red-hot coal and lots of little dancing, flickering flames. Suppose there was a soft, deep rug, and this was a comfortable chair, all cushions and crimson velvet; and suppose I had a crimson velvet frock on, and a deep lace collar, like a child in a picture; and suppose all the rest of the room was furnished in lovely colors, and there were book-shelves full of books, which changed by magic as soon as you had read them; and suppose there was a little table here, with a snow-white cover on it, and little silver dishes, and in one there was hot, hot soup, and in another a roast chicken, and in another some raspberry-jam tarts with crisscross on them, and in another some grapes; and suppose Emily could speak, and we could sit and eat our supper, and then talk and read; and then suppose there was a soft, warm bed in the corner, and when we were tired we could go to sleep, and sleep as long as we liked."
Sometimes, after she had supposed things like these for half an hour, she would feel almost warm, and would creep into bed with Emily and fall asleep with a smile on her face.
"What large, downy pillows!" she would whisper. "What white sheets and fleecy blankets!" And she almost forgot that her real pillows had scarcely any feathers in them at all, and smelled musty, and that her blankets and coverlid were thin and full of holes.
At another time she would "suppose" she was a princess, and then she would go about the house with an expression on her face which was a source of great secret annoyance to Miss Minchin, because it seemed as if the child scarcely heard the spiteful, insulting things said to her, or, if she heard them, did not care for them at all. Sometimes, while she was in the midst of some harsh and cruel speech, Miss Minchin would find the odd, unchildish eyes fixed upon her with something like a proud smile in them. At such times she did not know that Sara was saying to herself:
"You don't know that you are saying these things to a princess, and that if I chose I could wave my hand and order you to execution. I only spare you because I am a princess, and you are a poor, stupid, old, vulgar thing, and don't know any better."
This used to please and amuse her more than anything else; and queer and fanciful as it was, she found comfort in it, and it was not a bad thing for her. It really kept her from being made rude and malicious by the rudeness and malice of those about her.
"A princess must be polite," she said to herself. And so when the servants, who took their tone from their mistress, were insolent and ordered her about, she would hold her head erect, and reply to them sometimes in a way which made them stare at her, it was so quaintly civil.
"I am a princess in rags and tatters," she would think, "but I am a princess, inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth-of-gold; it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it. There was Marie Antoinette; when she was in prison, and her throne was gone, and she had only a black gown on, and her hair was white, and they insulted her and called her the Widow Capet,—she was a great deal more like a queen then than when she was so gay and had everything grand. I like her best then. Those howling mobs of people did not frighten her. She was stronger than they were even when they cut her head off."
Once when such thoughts were passing through her mind the look in her eyes so enraged Miss Minchin that she flew at Sara and boxed her ears.
Sara awakened from her dream, started a little, and then broke into a laugh.
"What are you laughing at, you bold, impudent child!" exclaimed Miss Minchin.
It took Sara a few seconds to remember she was a princess. Her cheeks were red and smarting from the blows she had received.
"I was thinking," she said.
"Beg my pardon immediately," said Miss Minchin.
"I will beg your pardon for laughing, if it was rude," said Sara; "but I won't beg your pardon for thinking."
"What were you thinking?" demanded Miss Minchin. "How dare you think? What were you thinking?"
This occurred in the school-room, and all the girls looked up from their books to listen. It always interested them when Miss Minchin flew at Sara, because Sara always said something queer, and never seemed in the least frightened. She was not in the least frightened now, though her boxed ears were scarlet, and her eyes were as bright as stars.
"I was thinking," she answered gravely and quite politely, "that you did not know what you were doing."
"That I did not know what I was doing!" Miss Minchin fairly gasped.
"Yes," said Sara, "and I was thinking what would happen, if I were a princess and you boxed my ears—what I should do to you. And I was thinking that if I were one, you would never dare to do it, whatever I said or did. And I was thinking how surprised and frightened you would be if you suddenly found out—"
She had the imagined picture so clearly before her eyes, that she spoke in a manner which had an effect even on Miss Minchin. It almost seemed for the moment to her narrow, unimaginative mind that there must be some real power behind this candid daring.
"What!" she exclaimed, "found out what?"
"That I really was a princess," said Sara, "and could do anything—anything I liked."
"Go to your room," cried Miss Minchin breathlessly, "this instant. Leave the school-room. Attend to your lessons, young ladies."
Sara made a little bow.
"Excuse me for laughing, if it was impolite," she said, and walked out of the room, leaving Miss Minchin in a rage and the girls whispering over their books.
"I shouldn't be at all surprised if she did turn out to be something," said one of them. "Suppose she should!"