On that first morning, when Sara sat
at Miss Minchin’s side, aware that the whole
schoolroom was devoting itself to observing her, she
had noticed very soon one little girl, about her own
age, who looked at her very hard with a pair of light,
rather dull, blue eyes. She was a fat child
who did not look as if she were in the least clever,
but she had a good-naturedly pouting mouth. Her
flaxen hair was braided in a tight pigtail, tied with
a ribbon, and she had pulled this pigtail around her
neck, and was biting the end of the ribbon, resting
her elbows on the desk, as she stared wonderingly
at the new pupil. When Monsieur Dufarge began
to speak to Sara, she looked a little frightened; and
when Sara stepped forward and, looking at him with
the innocent, appealing eyes, answered him, without
any warning, in French, the fat little girl gave a
startled jump, and grew quite red in her awed amazement.
Having wept hopeless tears for weeks in her efforts
to remember that “la mere” meant “the
mother,” and “lé pere,”
“the father,” when one spoke
sensible English it was almost too much
for her suddenly to find herself listening to a child
her own age who seemed not only quite familiar with
these words, but apparently knew any number of others,
and could mix them up with verbs as if they were mere
She stared so hard and bit the ribbon
on her pigtail so fast that she attracted the attention
of Miss Minchin, who, feeling extremely cross at the
moment, immediately pounced upon her.
“Miss St. John!” she exclaimed
severely. “What do you mean by such conduct?
Remove your elbows! Take your ribbon out of
your mouth! Sit up at once!”
Upon which Miss St. John gave another
jump, and when Lavinia and Jessie tittered she became
redder than ever so red, indeed, that she
almost looked as if tears were coming into her poor,
dull, childish eyes; and Sara saw her and was so sorry
for her that she began rather to like her and want
to be her friend. It was a way of hers always
to want to spring into any fray in which someone was
made uncomfortable or unhappy.
“If Sara had been a boy and
lived a few centuries ago,” her father used
to say, “she would have gone about the country
with her sword drawn, rescuing and defending everyone
in distress. She always wants to fight when
she sees people in trouble.”
So she took rather a fancy to fat,
slow, little Miss St. John, and kept glancing toward
her through the morning. She saw that lessons
were no easy matter to her, and that there was no
danger of her ever being spoiled by being treated
as a show pupil. Her French lesson was a pathetic
thing. Her pronunciation made even Monsieur Dufarge
smile in spite of himself, and Lavinia and Jessie
and the more fortunate girls either giggled or looked
at her in wondering disdain. But Sara did not
laugh. She tried to look as if she did not hear
when Miss St. John called “lé bon pain,”
“lee bong pang.” She had a fine,
hot little temper of her own, and it made her feel
rather savage when she heard the titters and saw the
poor, stupid, distressed child’s face.
“It isn’t funny, really,”
she said between her teeth, as she bent over her book.
“They ought not to laugh.”
When lessons were over and the pupils
gathered together in groups to talk, Sara looked for
Miss St. John, and finding her bundled rather disconsolately
in a window-seat, she walked over to her and spoke.
She only said the kind of thing little girls always
say to each other by way of beginning an acquaintance,
but there was something friendly about Sara, and people
always felt it.
“What is your name?” she said.
To explain Miss St. John’s amazement
one must recall that a new pupil is, for a short time,
a somewhat uncertain thing; and of this new pupil
the entire school had talked the night before until
it fell asleep quite exhausted by excitement and contradictory
stories. A new pupil with a carriage and a pony
and a maid, and a voyage from India to discuss, was
not an ordinary acquaintance.
“My name’s Ermengarde St. John,”
“Mine is Sara Crewe,”
said Sara. “Yours is very pretty.
It sounds like a story book.”
“Do you like it?” fluttered
Ermengarde. “I I like yours.”
Miss St. John’s chief trouble
in life was that she had a clever father. Sometimes
this seemed to her a dreadful calamity. If you
have a father who knows everything, who speaks seven
or eight languages, and has thousands of volumes which
he has apparently learned by heart, he frequently
expects you to be familiar with the contents of your
lesson books at least; and it is not improbable that
he will feel you ought to be able to remember a few
incidents of history and to write a French exercise.
Ermengarde was a severe trial to Mr. St. John.
He could not understand how a child of his could be
a notably and unmistakably dull creature who never
shone in anything.
“Good heavens!” he had
said more than once, as he stared at her, “there
are times when I think she is as stupid as her Aunt
If her Aunt Eliza had been slow to
learn and quick to forget a thing entirely when she
had learned it, Ermengarde was strikingly like her.
She was the monumental dunce of the school, and it
could not be denied.
“She must be made to learn,”
her father said to Miss Minchin.
Consequently Ermengarde spent the
greater part of her life in disgrace or in tears.
She learned things and forgot them; or, if she remembered
them, she did not understand them. So it was
natural that, having made Sara’s acquaintance,
she should sit and stare at her with profound admiration.
“You can speak French, can’t you?”
she said respectfully.
Sara got on to the window-seat, which
was a big, deep one, and, tucking up her feet, sat
with her hands clasped round her knees.
“I can speak it because I have
heard it all my life,” she answered. “You
could speak it if you had always heard it.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t,”
said Ermengarde. “I never could speak
“Why?” inquired Sara, curiously.
Ermengarde shook her head so that the pigtail wobbled.
“You heard me just now,”
she said. “I’m always like that.
I can’t say the words. They’re
She paused a moment, and then added with a touch of
awe in her voice,
“You are clever, aren’t you?”
Sara looked out of the window into
the dingy square, where the sparrows were hopping
and twittering on the wet, iron railings and the sooty
branches of the trees. She reflected a few moments.
She had heard it said very often that she was “clever,”
and she wondered if she was and if
she was, how it had happened.
“I don’t know,”
she said. “I can’t tell.”
Then, seeing a mournful look on the round, chubby
face, she gave a little laugh and changed the subject.
“Would you like to see Emily?” she inquired.
“Who is Emily?” Ermengarde asked, just
as Miss Minchin had done.
“Come up to my room and see,” said Sara,
holding out her hand.
They jumped down from the window-seat together, and
“Is it true,” Ermengarde
whispered, as they went through the hall “is
it true that you have a playroom all to yourself?”
“Yes,” Sara answered.
“Papa asked Miss Minchin to let me have one,
because well, it was because when I play
I make up stories and tell them to myself, and I don’t
like people to hear me. It spoils it if I think
They had reached the passage leading
to Sara’s room by this time, and Ermengarde
stopped short, staring, and quite losing her breath.
“You make up stories!”
she gasped. “Can you do that as
well as speak French? Can you?”
Sara looked at her in simple surprise.
“Why, anyone can make up things,” she
said. “Have you never tried?”
She put her hand warningly on Ermengarde’s.
“Let us go very quietly to the
door,” she whispered, “and then I will
open it quite suddenly; perhaps we may catch her.”
She was half laughing, but there was
a touch of mysterious hope in her eyes which fascinated
Ermengarde, though she had not the remotest idea what
it meant, or whom it was she wanted to “catch,”
or why she wanted to catch her. Whatsoever she
meant, Ermengarde was sure it was something delightfully
exciting. So, quite thrilled with expectation,
she followed her on tiptoe along the passage.
They made not the least noise until they reached the
door. Then Sara suddenly turned the handle, and
threw it wide open. Its opening revealed the room
quite neat and quiet, a fire gently burning in the
grate, and a wonderful doll sitting in a chair by
it, apparently reading a book.
“Oh, she got back to her seat
before we could see her!” Sara explained.
“Of course they always do. They are as
quick as lightning.”
Ermengarde looked from her to the doll and back again.
“Can she walk?” she asked breathlessly.
“Yes,” answered Sara.
“At least I believe she can. At least
I pretend I believe she can. And that makes
it seem as if it were true. Have you never pretended
“No,” said Ermengarde. “Never.
I tell me about it.”
She was so bewitched by this odd,
new companion that she actually stared at Sara instead
of at Emily notwithstanding that Emily was
the most attractive doll person she had ever seen.
“Let us sit down,” said
Sara, “and I will tell you. It’s
so easy that when you begin you can’t stop.
You just go on and on doing it always. And it’s
beautiful. Emily, you must listen. This
is Ermengarde St. John, Emily. Ermengarde, this
is Emily. Would you like to hold her?”
“Oh, may I?” said Ermengarde.
“May I, really? She is beautiful!”
And Emily was put into her arms.
Never in her dull, short life had
Miss St. John dreamed of such an hour as the one she
spent with the queer new pupil before they heard the
lunch-bell ring and were obliged to go downstairs.
Sara sat upon the hearth-rug and told
her strange things. She sat rather huddled up,
and her green eyes shone and her cheeks flushed.
She told stories of the voyage, and stories of India;
but what fascinated Ermengarde the most was her fancy
about the dolls who walked and talked, and who could
do anything they chose when the human beings were
out of the room, but who must keep their powers a secret
and so flew back to their places “like lightning”
when people returned to the room.
“We couldn’t do it,”
said Sara, seriously. “You see, it’s
a kind of magic.”
Once, when she was relating the story
of the search for Emily, Ermengarde saw her face suddenly
change. A cloud seemed to pass over it and put
out the light in her shining eyes. She drew her
breath in so sharply that it made a funny, sad little
sound, and then she shut her lips and held them tightly
closed, as if she was determined either to do or not
to do something. Ermengarde had an idea that if
she had been like any other little girl, she might
have suddenly burst out sobbing and crying. But
she did not.
“Have you a a pain?” Ermengarde
“Yes,” Sara answered,
after a moment’s silence. “But it
is not in my body.” Then she added something
in a low voice which she tried to keep quite steady,
and it was this: “Do you love your father
more than anything else in all the whole world?”
Ermengarde’s mouth fell open
a little. She knew that it would be far from
behaving like a respectable child at a select seminary
to say that it had never occurred to you that you
could love your father, that you would do anything
desperate to avoid being left alone in his society
for ten minutes. She was, indeed, greatly embarrassed.
“I I scarcely ever
see him,” she stammered. “He is always
in the library reading things.”
“I love mine more than all the
world ten times over,” Sara said. “That
is what my pain is. He has gone away.”
She put her head quietly down on her
little, huddled-up knees, and sat very still for a
“She’s going to cry out
loud,” thought Ermengarde, fearfully.
But she did not. Her short,
black locks tumbled about her ears, and she sat still.
Then she spoke without lifting her head.
“I promised him I would bear
it,” she said. “And I will.
You have to bear things. Think what soldiers
bear! Papa is a soldier. If there was a
war he would have to bear marching and thirstiness
and, perhaps, deep wounds. And he would never
say a word not one word.”
Ermengarde could only gaze at her,
but she felt that she was beginning to adore her.
She was so wonderful and different from anyone else.
Presently, she lifted her face and
shook back her black locks, with a queer little smile.
“If I go on talking and talking,”
she said, “and telling you things about pretending,
I shall bear it better. You don’t forget,
but you bear it better.”
Ermengarde did not know why a lump
came into her throat and her eyes felt as if tears
were in them.
“Lavinia and Jessie are ‘best
friends,’” she said rather huskily.
“I wish we could be ‘best friends.’
Would you have me for yours? You’re clever,
and I’m the stupidest child in the school, but
I oh, I do so like you!”
“I’m glad of that,”
said Sara. “It makes you thankful when
you are liked. Yes. We will be friends.
And I’ll tell you what” a sudden
gleam lighting her face “I can help
you with your French lessons.”