English Literature

A World of Girls by L.T. Meade

A World of Girls by L.T. Meade.jpg

Chapter One.

“Good-Bye” to the Old Life.

“Me want to see Hetty,” said an imperious baby voice.

“No, no; not this morning, Miss Nan, dear.”

“Me do want to see Hetty,” was the quick, impatient reply. And a sturdy indignant little face looked up at Nurse, to watch the effect of the last decisive words.

Finding no affirmative reply on Nurse’s placid face, the small lips closed firmly—two dimples came and went on two very round cheeks—the mischievous brown eyes grew full of laughter, and the next moment the little questioner had squeezed her way through a slightly open door, and was toddling down the broad stone stairs and across a landing to Hetty’s room. The room door was open, so the truant went in. A bed with the bedclothes all tossed about, a half worn-out slipper on the floor, a very untidy dressing-table met her eyes, but no Hetty.

“Me want Hetty, me do,” piped the treble voice, and then the little feet commenced a careful and watchful pilgrimage, the lips still firmly shut, the dimples coming and going, and the eyes throwing many upward glances in the direction of Nurse and the nursery.

No pursuit as yet, and great, great hope of finding Hetty somewhere in the down-stair regions. Ah, now, how good! those dangerous stairs had been descended, and the little voice calling in shrill tones for Hetty rang out in the wide hall.

“Let her come to me,” suddenly said an answering voice, and a girl of about twelve, dressed in deep mourning, suddenly opened the door of a small study and clasped the little one in her arms.

“So you have found me, my precious, my dearest! Brave, plucky little Nan, you have got away from Nurse and found me out! Come into the study, now, darling, and you shall have some breakfast.”

“Me want a bicky, Hetty,” said the baby voice; the round arms clasped Hester’s neck, but the brown eyes were already travelling eagerly over the breakfast table in quest of spoil for those rosy little lips.

“Here are two biscuits, Nan. Nan, look me in the face—here, sit steady on my knee; you lose me, don’t you Nan?”

“Course me do,” said the child.

“And I’m going away from you, Nan, darling. For months and months I won’t see anything of you. My heart will be always with you, and I shall think of you morning, noon, and night. I love no one as I love you, Nan. You will think of me, and love me too; won’t you, Nan?”

“Me will,” said Nan; “me want more bicky, Hetty.”

“Yes, yes,” answered Hester; “put your arms tight round my neck, and you shall have sugar, too. Tighter than that, Nan, and you shall have two lumps of sugar—oh, yes, you shall—I don’t care if it makes you sick—you shall have just what you want the last moment we are together.”

Baby Nan was only too pleased to crumple up a crape frill and to smear a black dress with sticky little fingers for the sake of the sugar which Hetty plied her with.

“More, Hetty,” she said; “me’ll skeeze ’oo vedy tight for more.”

On this scene Nurse unexpectedly entered.

“Well, I never! and so you found your way all downstairs by yourself, you little toddle. Now, Miss Hetty, I hope you haven’t been giving the precious lamb sugar; you know it never does suit the little dear. Oh, fie! baby; and what sticky hands! Miss Hetty, she has crumpled all your crape frills.”

“What matter?” said Hester. “I wanted a good hug, and I gave her three or four lumps. Babies won’t squeeze you tight for nothing. There, my Nancy, go back to Nurse. Nurse, take her away; I’ll break down in a minute if I see her looking at me with that little pout.”

Nurse took the child into her arms.

“Good-bye, Miss Hester, dear. Try to be a good girl at school. Take my word, missy—things won’t be as dark as they seem.”

“Good-bye, Nurse,” said Hester hastily. “Is that you, father? are you calling me?”

She gathered up her muff and gloves, and ran out of the little study where she had been making believe to eat breakfast. A tall, stern-looking man was in the hall, buttoning on an overcoat; a brougham waited at the door. The next moment Hester and her father were bowling away in the direction of the nearest railway station. Nan’s little chubby face had faded from view. The old square grey house, sacred to Hester because of Nan, had also disappeared; the avenue even was past, and Hester closed her bright brown eyes. She felt that she was being pushed out into a cold world, and was no longer in the same snug nest with Nan. An intolerable pain was at her heart; she did not glance at her father, who during their entire drive occupied himself over his morning paper. At last they reached the railway station, and just as Sir John Thornton was handing his daughter into a comfortable first-class carriage, marked “For Ladies only,” and was presenting her with her railway ticket and a copy of the last week’s illustrated newspaper, he spoke—

“The guard will take care of you, Hester. I am giving him full directions, and he will come to you at every station, and bring you tea or any refreshment you may require. This train takes you straight to Sefton, and Mrs Willis will meet you, or send for you there. Good-bye, my love; try to be a good girl, and curb your wild spirits. I hope to see you very much improved when you come home at Midsummer. Good-bye, dear, good-bye. Ah, you want to kiss me—well, just one kiss. There—oh, my dear! you know I have a great dislike to emotion in public.”

Sir John Thornton said this because a pair of arms had been flung suddenly round his neck, and two kisses imprinted passionately on his sallow cheek. A tear also rested on his cheek, but that he wiped away.


Chapter Two.

Travelling Companions.

The train moved rapidly on its way, and the girl in one corner of the railway carriage cried silently behind her crape veil. Her tears were very subdued, but her heart felt sore, bruised, indignant; she hated the idea of school-life before her, she hated the expected restraints and the probable punishments; she fancied herself going from a free life into a prison, and detested it accordingly.

Three months before, Hester Thornton had been one of the happiest, brightest, and merriest of little girls in — shire; but the mother who was her guardian angel, who had kept the frank and spirited child in check without appearing to do so, who had guided her by the magical power of love and not in the least by that of fear, had met her death suddenly by means of a carriage accident, and Hester and baby Nan were left motherless. Several little brothers and sisters had come between Hester and Nan, but from various causes they had all died in their infancy, and only the eldest and youngest of Sir John Thornton’s family remained.

Hester’s father was stern, uncompromising. He was a very just and upright man, but he knew nothing of the ways of children, and when Hester in her usual tom-boyish fashion climbed trees and tore her dresses, and rode bare-backed on one or two of his most dangerous horses, he not only tried a little sharp, and therefore useless, correction, but determined to take immediate steps to have his wild and rather unmanageable little daughter sent to a first-class school. Hester was on her way there now, and very sore was her heart, and indignant her impulses. Father’s “good-bye” seemed to her to be the crowning touch to her unhappiness, and she made up her mind not to be good, not to learn her lessons, not to come home at Midsummer crowned with honours and reduced to an every-day and pattern little girl. No, she would be the same wild Hetty as of yore: and when father saw that school could do nothing for her, that it could never make her into a good and ordinary little girl, he would allow her to remain at home. At home there was, at least, Nan to love, and there was mother to remember.

Hetty was a child of the strongest feelings. Since her mother’s death she had scarcely mentioned her name. When her father alluded to his wife, Hester ran out of the room: when the servants spoke of their late mistress, Hester turned pale, stamped her feet, and told them to be quiet.

“You are not worthy to speak of my mother,” she electrified them all one day by exclaiming. “My mother is an angel now, and you—oh, you are not fit to breathe her name!”

Only to one person would Hetty ever voluntarily say a word about the beloved dead mother, and that was to little Nan. Nan said her prayers, as she expressed it, to Hetty now; and Hetty taught her a little phrase to use instead of the familiar “God bless mother.” She taught the child to say, “Thank God for making mother into a beautiful angel;” and when Nan asked what an angel was, and how the cosy mother she remembered could be turned into one, Hester was beguiled into a soft and tearful talk, and she drew several lovely pictures of white-robed angels, until the 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 they had almost ceased, for Nan was only two and a half, and the strange sad fact remained that in three months she had almost forgotten her mother.

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

“You will, perhaps, prefer a cake, my dear?” said the good-natured little old lady. “My sister Agnes has got some delicious queen-cakes in her basket—will you eat one?”

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

“Ah, that is much better,” said the first little old lady. “Come to this side of the carriage, my love; we are just going to pass through a lovely bit of country, and you will like to watch the view. See; if you place 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 was really quite impossible to keep up reserve with such a bright-looking little 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 particularly fond of queen-cakes.”

“And who is Nan, my dear?” asked the sister to whom the queen-cakes specially 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 first lady, laying her hand on Hester’s arm. “Never mind us, dear, we have seen 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 was quite natural that you should cry about your sweet little Nan, and I wish we could send her some of these queen-cakes that you say she is so fond of. Are you going to be long away from her, love?”

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

“Ah, you have had other trouble, poor child,” glancing at her deep mourning frock.

“Yes, it is since then I have cried so often. Please, I would rather not speak about it.”

“Quite right, my love, quite right,” said Miss Agnes in a much brisker tone than her sister. “We will turn the conversation now to something inspiriting. Jane is quite right, there are plenty of tears in the world; 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 bound on quite a pleasant little expedition. For instance, you are going to visit a kind aunt, or some one else who will give you a delightful welcome.”

“No,” said Hester, “I am not. I am going to a dreadful place, and the thought of that, and parting from little Nan, are the reasons why I cried. 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 must be 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 must be mistaken; for if you were going to such a terrible place of punishment you would be under the charge of a policeman. You are given to strong language, dear, like other young folk.”

“Well, I call it prison,” continued Hester, who was rather flattered by all 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—you can’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 Hetty a 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 you imagine, 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 a vigorous catechising of the little girl. Really, Hester could not help feeling almost sunshiny before that long journey came to an end, for she and the Misses Bruce made some delightful discoveries. The little old ladies very quickly found out that they lived close to the school where Hetty was to spend the next few months. They knew Mrs Willis well—they knew the delightful rambling, old-fashioned house where Hester was to live—they even knew two or three of the scholars: and they said so often to the little girl that she was going into a life of clover—positive clover—that she began to smile, and even partly to believe them.

“I am glad I shall be near you, at least,” she said at last, with a frank sweet smile, for she had greatly taken to her kind fellow-travellers.

“Yes, my dear,” exclaimed Miss Jane. “We attend the same church, and I shall look out for you on Sunday, and,” she continued, glancing first at her sister and then addressing Hester, “perhaps Mrs Willis will allow you 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 we are at Sefton at last. We shall look out for you in church on Sunday, my love.”

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