It was dark when she reached the square in which Miss Minchin's Select Seminary was situated; the lamps were lighted, and in most of the windows gleams of light were to be seen. It always interested Sara to catch glimpses of the rooms before the shutters were closed. She liked to imagine things about people who sat before the fires in the houses, or who bent over books at the tables. There was, for instance, the Large Family opposite. She called these people the Large Family—not because they were large, for indeed most of them were little,—but because there were so many of them. There were eight children in the Large Family, and a stout, rosy mother, and a stout, rosy father, and a stout, rosy grand-mamma, and any number of servants. The eight children were always either being taken out to walk, or to ride in perambulators, by comfortable nurses; or they were going to drive with their mamma; or they were flying to the door in the evening to kiss their papa and dance around him and drag off his overcoat and look for packages in the pockets of it; or they were crowding about the nursery windows and looking out and pushing each other and laughing,—in fact they were always doing something which seemed enjoyable and suited to the tastes of a large family. Sara was quite attached to them, and had given them all names out of books. She called them the Montmorencys, when she did not call them the Large Family. The fat, fair baby with the lace cap was Ethelberta Beauchamp Montmorency; the next baby was Violet Cholmondely Montmorency; the little boy who could just stagger, and who had such round legs, was Sydney Cecil Vivian Montmorency; and then came Lilian Evangeline, Guy Clarence, Maud Marian, Rosalind Gladys, Veronica Eustacia, and Claude Harold Hector.
Next door to the Large Family lived the Maiden Lady, who had a companion, and two parrots, and a King Charles spaniel; but Sara was not so very fond of her, because she did nothing in particular but talk to the parrots and drive out with the spaniel. The most interesting person of all lived next door to Miss Minchin herself. Sara called him the Indian Gentleman. He was an elderly gentleman who was said to have lived in the East Indies, and to be immensely rich and to have something the matter with his liver,—in fact, it had been rumored that he had no liver at all, and was much inconvenienced by the fact. At any rate, he was very yellow and he did not look happy; and when he went out to his carriage, he was almost always wrapped up in shawls and overcoats, as if he were cold. He had a native servant who looked even colder than himself, and he had a monkey who looked colder than the native servant. Sara had seen the monkey sitting on a table, in the sun, in the parlor window, and he always wore such a mournful expression that she sympathized with him deeply.
"I dare say," she used sometimes to remark to herself, "he is thinking all the time of cocoanut trees and of swinging by his tail under a tropical sun. He might have had a family dependent on him too, poor thing!"
The native servant, whom she called the Lascar, looked mournful too, but he was evidently very faithful to his master.
"Perhaps he saved his master's life in the Sepoy rebellion," she thought. "They look as if they might have had all sorts of adventures. I wish I could speak to the Lascar. I remember a little Hindustani."
And one day she actually did speak to him, and his start at the sound of his own language expressed a great deal of surprise and delight. He was waiting for his master to come out to the carriage, and Sara, who was going on an errand as usual, stopped and spoke a few words. She had a special gift for languages and had remembered enough Hindustani to make herself understood by him. When his master came out, the Lascar spoke to him quickly, and the Indian Gentleman turned and looked at her curiously. And afterward the Lascar always greeted her with salaams of the most profound description. And occasionally they exchanged a few words. She learned that it was true that the Sahib was very rich—that he was ill—and also that he had no wife nor children, and that England did not agree with the monkey.
"He must be as lonely as I am," thought Sara. "Being rich does not seem to make him happy."
That evening, as she passed the windows, the Lascar was closing the shutters, and she caught a glimpse of the room inside. There was a bright fire glowing in the grate, and the Indian Gentleman was sitting before it, in a luxurious chair. The room was richly furnished, and looked delightfully comfortable, but the Indian Gentleman sat with his head resting on his hand, and looked as lonely and unhappy as ever.
"Poor man!" said Sara; "I wonder what you are `supposing'?"
When she went into the house she met Miss Minchin in the hall.
"Where have you wasted your time?" said Miss Minchin. "You have been out for hours!"
"It was so wet and muddy," Sara answered. "It was hard to walk, because my shoes were so bad and slipped about so."
"Make no excuses," said Miss Minchin, "and tell no falsehoods."
Sara went downstairs to the kitchen.
"Why didn't you stay all night?" said the cook.
"Here are the things," said Sara, and laid her purchases on the table.
The cook looked over them, grumbling. She was in a very bad temper indeed.
"May I have something to eat?" Sara asked rather faintly.
"Tea's over and done with," was the answer. "Did you expect me to keep it hot for you?"
Sara was silent a second.
"I had no dinner," she said, and her voice was quite low. She made it low, because she was afraid it would tremble.
"There's some bread in the pantry," said the cook. "That's all you'll get at this time of day."
Sara went and found the bread. It was old and hard and dry. The cook was in too bad a humor to give her anything to eat with it. She had just been scolded by Miss Minchin, and it was always safe and easy to vent her own spite on Sara.
Really it was hard for the child to climb the three long flights of stairs leading to her garret. She often found them long and steep when she was tired, but to-night it seemed as if she would never reach the top. Several times a lump rose in her throat and she was obliged to stop to rest.
"I can't pretend anything more to-night," she said wearily to herself. "I'm sure I can't. I'll eat my bread and drink some water and then go to sleep, and perhaps a dream will come and pretend for me. I wonder what dreams are."
Yes, when she reached the top landing there were tears in her eyes, and she did not feel like a princess—only like a tired, hungry, lonely, lonely child.
"If my papa had lived," she said, "they would not have treated me like this. If my papa had lived, he would have taken care of me."
Then she turned the handle and opened the garret-door.
Can you imagine it—can you believe it? I find it hard to believe it myself. And Sara found it impossible; for the first few moments she thought something strange had happened to her eyes—to her mind—that the dream had come before she had had time to fall asleep.
"Oh!" she exclaimed breathlessly. "Oh! it isn't true! I know, I know it isn't true!" And she slipped into the room and closed the door and locked it, and stood with her back against it, staring straight before her.
Do you wonder? In the grate, which had been empty and rusty and cold when she left it, but which now was blackened and polished up quite respectably, there was a glowing, blazing fire. On the hob was a little brass kettle, hissing and boiling; spread upon the floor was a warm, thick rug; before the fire was a folding-chair, unfolded and with cushions on it; by the chair was a small folding-table, unfolded, covered with a white cloth, and upon it were spread small covered dishes, a cup and saucer, and a tea-pot; on the bed were new, warm coverings, a curious wadded silk robe, and some books. The little, cold, miserable room seemed changed into Fairyland. It was actually warm and glowing.
"It is bewitched!" said Sara. "Or I am bewitched. I only think I see it all; but if I can only keep on thinking it, I don't care—I don't care—if I can only keep it up!"
She was afraid to move, for fear it would melt away. She stood with her back against the door and looked and looked. But soon she began to feel warm, and then she moved forward.
"A fire that I only thought I saw surely wouldn't feel warm," she said. "It feels real—real."
She went to it and knelt before it. She touched the chair, the table; she lifted the cover of one of the dishes. There was something hot and savory in it—something delicious. The tea-pot had tea in it, ready for the boiling water from the little kettle; one plate had toast on it, another, muffins.
"It is real," said Sara. "The fire is real enough to warm me; I can sit in the chair; the things are real enough to eat."
It was like a fairy story come true—it was heavenly. She went to the bed and touched the blankets and the wrap. They were real too. She opened one book, and on the title-page was written in a strange hand, "The little girl in the attic."
Suddenly—was it a strange thing for her to do?—Sara put her face down on the queer, foreign looking quilted robe and burst into tears.
"I don't know who it is," she said, "but somebody cares about me a little—somebody is my friend."
Somehow that thought warmed her more than the fire. She had never had a friend since those happy, luxurious days when she had had everything; and those days had seemed such a long way off—so far away as to be only like dreams—during these last years at Miss Minchin's.
She really cried more at this strange thought of having a friend—even though an unknown one—than she had cried over many of her worst troubles.
But these tears seemed different from the others, for when she had wiped them away they did not seem to leave her eyes and her heart hot and smarting.
And then imagine, if you can, what the rest of the evening was like. The delicious comfort of taking off the damp clothes and putting on the soft, warm, quilted robe before the glowing fire—of slipping her cold feet into the luscious little wool-lined slippers she found near her chair. And then the hot tea and savory dishes, the cushioned chair and the books!
It was just like Sara, that, once having found the things real, she should give herself up to the enjoyment of them to the very utmost. She had lived such a life of imagining, and had found her pleasure so long in improbabilities, that she was quite equal to accepting any wonderful thing that happened. After she was quite warm and had eaten her supper and enjoyed herself for an hour or so, it had almost ceased to be surprising to her that such magical surroundings should be hers. As to finding out who had done all this, she knew that it was out of the question. She did not know a human soul by whom it could seem in the least degree probable that it could have been done.
"There is nobody," she said to herself, "nobody." She discussed the matter with Emily, it is true, but more because it was delightful to talk about it than with a view to making any discoveries.
"But we have a friend, Emily," she said; "we have a friend."