The first night she spent in her attic
was a thing Sara never forgot. During its passing
she lived through a wild, unchildlike woe of which
she never spoke to anyone about her. There was
no one who would have understood. It was, indeed,
well for her that as she lay awake in the darkness
her mind was forcibly distracted, now and then, by
the strangeness of her surroundings. It was,
perhaps, well for her that she was reminded by her
small body of material things. If this had not
been so, the anguish of her young mind might have been
too great for a child to bear. But, really,
while the night was passing she scarcely knew that
she had a body at all or remembered any other thing
“My papa is dead!” she kept whispering
to herself. “My papa is dead!”
It was not until long afterward that
she realized that her bed had been so hard that she
turned over and over in it to find a place to rest,
that the darkness seemed more intense than any she
had ever known, and that the wind howled over the
roof among the chimneys like something which wailed
aloud. Then there was something worse. This
was certain scufflings and scratchings and squeakings
in the walls and behind the skirting boards.
She knew what they meant, because Becky had described
them. They meant rats and mice who were either
fighting with each other or playing together.
Once or twice she even heard sharp-toed feet scurrying
across the floor, and she remembered in those after
days, when she recalled things, that when first she
heard them she started up in bed and sat trembling,
and when she lay down again covered her head with
The change in her life did not come
about gradually, but was made all at once.
“She must begin as she is to
go on,” Miss Minchin said to Miss Amelia.
“She must be taught at once what she is to expect.”
Mariette had left the house the next
morning. The glimpse Sara caught of her sitting
room, as she passed its open door, showed her that
everything had been changed. Her ornaments and
luxuries had been removed, and a bed had been placed
in a corner to transform it into a new pupil’s
When she went down to breakfast she
saw that her seat at Miss Minchin’s side was
occupied by Lavinia, and Miss Minchin spoke to her
“You will begin your new duties,
Sara,” she said, “by taking your seat
with the younger children at a smaller table.
You must keep them quiet, and see that they behave
well and do not waste their food. You ought to
have been down earlier. Lottie has already upset
That was the beginning, and from day
to day the duties given to her were added to.
She taught the younger children French and heard their
other lessons, and these were the least of her labors.
It was found that she could be made use of in numberless
directions. She could be sent on errands at any
time and in all weathers. She could be told to
do things other people neglected. The cook and
the housemaids took their tone from Miss Minchin,
and rather enjoyed ordering about the “young
one” who had been made so much fuss over for
so long. They were not servants of the best
class, and had neither good manners nor good tempers,
and it was frequently convenient to have at hand someone
on whom blame could be laid.
During the first month or two, Sara
thought that her willingness to do things as well
as she could, and her silence under reproof, might
soften those who drove her so hard. In her proud
little heart she wanted them to see that she was trying
to earn her living and not accepting charity.
But the time came when she saw that no one was softened
at all; and the more willing she was to do as she was
told, the more domineering and exacting careless housemaids
became, and the more ready a scolding cook was to
If she had been older, Miss Minchin
would have given her the bigger girls to teach and
saved money by dismissing an instructress; but while
she remained and looked like a child, she could be
made more useful as a sort of little superior errand
girl and maid of all work. An ordinary errand
boy would not have been so clever and reliable.
Sara could be trusted with difficult commissions and
complicated messages. She could even go and pay
bills, and she combined with this the ability to dust
a room well and to set things in order.
Her own lessons became things of the
past. She was taught nothing, and only after
long and busy days spent in running here and there
at everybody’s orders was she grudgingly allowed
to go into the deserted schoolroom, with a pile of
old books, and study alone at night.
“If I do not remind myself of
the things I have learned, perhaps I may forget them,”
she said to herself. “I am almost a scullery
maid, and if I am a scullery maid who knows nothing,
I shall be like poor Becky. I wonder if I could
quite forget and begin to drop my h’s
and not remember that Henry the Eighth had six wives.”
One of the most curious things in
her new existence was her changed position among the
pupils. Instead of being a sort of small royal
personage among them, she no longer seemed to be one
of their number at all. She was kept so constantly
at work that she scarcely ever had an opportunity
of speaking to any of them, and she could not avoid
seeing that Miss Minchin preferred that she should
live a life apart from that of the occupants of the
“I will not have her forming
intimacies and talking to the other children,”
that lady said. “Girls like a grievance,
and if she begins to tell romantic stories about herself,
she will become an ill-used heroine, and parents will
be given a wrong impression. It is better that
she should live a separate life one suited
to her circumstances. I am giving her a home,
and that is more than she has any right to expect
Sara did not expect much, and was
far too proud to try to continue to be intimate with
girls who evidently felt rather awkward and uncertain
about her. The fact was that Miss Minchin’s
pupils were a set of dull, matter-of-fact young people.
They were accustomed to being rich and comfortable,
and as Sara’s frocks grew shorter and shabbier
and queerer-looking, and it became an established
fact that she wore shoes with holes in them and was
sent out to buy groceries and carry them through the
streets in a basket on her arm when the cook wanted
them in a hurry, they felt rather as if, when they
spoke to her, they were addressing an under servant.
“To think that she was the girl
with the diamond mines,” Lavinia commented.
“She does look an object. And she’s
queerer than ever. I never liked her much, but
I can’t bear that way she has now of looking
at people without speaking just as if she
was finding them out.”
“I am,” said Sara, promptly,
when she heard of this. “That’s what
I look at some people for. I like to know about
them. I think them over afterward.”
The truth was that she had saved herself
annoyance several times by keeping her eye on Lavinia,
who was quite ready to make mischief, and would have
been rather pleased to have made it for the ex-show
Sara never made any mischief herself,
or interfered with anyone. She worked like a
drudge; she tramped through the wet streets, carrying
parcels and baskets; she labored with the childish
inattention of the little ones’ French lessons;
as she became shabbier and more forlorn-looking, she
was told that she had better take her meals downstairs;
she was treated as if she was nobody’s concern,
and her heart grew proud and sore, but she never told
anyone what she felt.
“Soldiers don’t complain,”
she would say between her small, shut teeth, “I
am not going to do it; I will pretend this is part
of a war.”
But there were hours when her child
heart might almost have broken with loneliness but
for three people.
The first, it must be owned, was Becky just
Becky. Throughout all that first night spent
in the garret, she had felt a vague comfort in knowing
that on the other side of the wall in which the rats
scuffled and squeaked there was another young human
creature. And during the nights that followed
the sense of comfort grew. They had little chance
to speak to each other during the day. Each had
her own tasks to perform, and any attempt at conversation
would have been regarded as a tendency to loiter and
lose time. “Don’t mind me, miss,”
Becky whispered during the first morning, “if
I don’t say nothin’ polite. Some
un’d be down on us if I did. I means
‘please’ an’ ‘thank you’
an’ ‘beg pardon,’ but I dassn’t
to take time to say it.”
But before daybreak she used to slip
into Sara’s attic and button her dress and give
her such help as she required before she went downstairs
to light the kitchen fire. And when night came
Sara always heard the humble knock at her door which
meant that her handmaid was ready to help her again
if she was needed. During the first weeks of
her grief Sara felt as if she were too stupefied to
talk, so it happened that some time passed before
they saw each other much or exchanged visits.
Becky’s heart told her that it was best that
people in trouble should be left alone.
The second of the trio of comforters
was Ermengarde, but odd things happened before Ermengarde
found her place.
When Sara’s mind seemed to awaken
again to the life about her, she realized that she
had forgotten that an Ermengarde lived in the world.
The two had always been friends, but Sara had felt
as if she were years the older. It could not
be contested that Ermengarde was as dull as she was
affectionate. She clung to Sara in a simple,
helpless way; she brought her lessons to her that
she might be helped; she listened to her every word
and besieged her with requests for stories. But
she had nothing interesting to say herself, and she
loathed books of every description. She was,
in fact, not a person one would remember when one
was caught in the storm of a great trouble, and Sara
It had been all the easier to forget
her because she had been suddenly called home for
a few weeks. When she came back she did not see
Sara for a day or two, and when she met her for the
first time she encountered her coming down a corridor
with her arms full of garments which were to be taken
downstairs to be mended. Sara herself had already
been taught to mend them. She looked pale and
unlike herself, and she was attired in the queer,
outgrown frock whose shortness showed so much thin
Ermengarde was too slow a girl to
be equal to such a situation. She could not
think of anything to say. She knew what had happened,
but, somehow, she had never imagined Sara could look
like this so odd and poor and almost like
a servant. It made her quite miserable, and she
could do nothing but break into a short hysterical
laugh and exclaim aimlessly and as if without
any meaning, “Oh, Sara, is that you?”
“Yes,” answered Sara,
and suddenly a strange thought passed through her
mind and made her face flush. She held the pile
of garments in her arms, and her chin rested upon
the top of it to keep it steady. Something in
the look of her straight-gazing eyes made Ermengarde
lose her wits still more. She felt as if Sara
had changed into a new kind of girl, and she had never
known her before. Perhaps it was because she
had suddenly grown poor and had to mend things and
work like Becky.
“Oh,” she stammered. “How how
“I don’t know,” Sara replied.
“How are you?”
quite well,” said Ermengarde, overwhelmed with
shyness. Then spasmodically she thought of something
to say which seemed more intimate. “Are
you are you very unhappy?” she said
in a rush.
Then Sara was guilty of an injustice.
Just at that moment her torn heart swelled within
her, and she felt that if anyone was as stupid as
that, one had better get away from her.
“What do you think?” she
said. “Do you think I am very happy?”
And she marched past her without another word.
In course of time she realized that
if her wretchedness had not made her forget things,
she would have known that poor, dull Ermengarde was
not to be blamed for her unready, awkward ways.
She was always awkward, and the more she felt, the
more stupid she was given to being.
But the sudden thought which had flashed
upon her had made her over-sensitive.
“She is like the others,”
she had thought. “She does not really want
to talk to me. She knows no one does.”
So for several weeks a barrier stood
between them. When they met by chance Sara looked
the other way, and Ermengarde felt too stiff and embarrassed
to speak. Sometimes they nodded to each other
in passing, but there were times when they did not
even exchange a greeting.
“If she would rather not talk
to me,” Sara thought, “I will keep out
of her way. Miss Minchin makes that easy enough.”
Miss Minchin made it so easy that
at last they scarcely saw each other at all.
At that time it was noticed that Ermengarde was more
stupid than ever, and that she looked listless and
unhappy. She used to sit in the window-seat,
huddled in a heap, and stare out of the window without
speaking. Once Jessie, who was passing, stopped
to look at her curiously.
“What are you crying for, Ermengarde?”
“I’m not crying,” answered Ermengarde,
in a muffled, unsteady voice.
“You are,” said Jessie.
“A great big tear just rolled down the bridge
of your nose and dropped off at the end of it.
And there goes another.”
“Well,” said Ermengarde,
“I’m miserable and no one need
interfere.” And she turned her plump back
and took out her handkerchief and boldly hid her face
That night, when Sara went to her
attic, she was later than usual. She had been
kept at work until after the hour at which the pupils
went to bed, and after that she had gone to her lessons
in the lonely schoolroom. When she reached the
top of the stairs, she was surprised to see a glimmer
of light coming from under the attic door.
“Nobody goes there but myself,”
she thought quickly, “but someone has lighted
Someone had, indeed, lighted a candle,
and it was not burning in the kitchen candlestick
she was expected to use, but in one of those belonging
to the pupils’ bedrooms. The someone was
sitting upon the battered footstool, and was dressed
in her nightgown and wrapped up in a red shawl.
It was Ermengarde.
“Ermengarde!” cried Sara.
She was so startled that she was almost frightened.
“You will get into trouble.”
Ermengarde stumbled up from her footstool.
She shuffled across the attic in her bedroom slippers,
which were too large for her. Her eyes and nose
were pink with crying.
“I know I shall if
I’m found out.” she said. “But
I don’t care I don’t care a
bit. Oh, Sara, please tell me. What is
the matter? Why don’t you like me any more?”
Something in her voice made the familiar
lump rise in Sara’s throat. It was so affectionate
and simple so like the old Ermengarde who
had asked her to be “best friends.”
It sounded as if she had not meant what she had seemed
to mean during these past weeks.
“I do like you,” Sara
answered. “I thought you see,
everything is different now. I thought you were
Ermengarde opened her wet eyes wide.
“Why, it was you who were different!”
she cried. “You didn’t want to talk
to me. I didn’t know what to do.
It was you who were different after I came back.”
Sara thought a moment. She saw she had made
“I am different,”
she explained, “though not in the way you think.
Miss Minchin does not want me to talk to the girls.
Most of them don’t want to talk to me.
I thought perhaps you didn’t.
So I tried to keep out of your way.”
“Oh, Sara,” Ermengarde
almost wailed in her reproachful dismay. And
then after one more look they rushed into each other’s
arms. It must be confessed that Sara’s
small black head lay for some minutes on the shoulder
covered by the red shawl. When Ermengarde had
seemed to desert her, she had felt horribly lonely.
Afterward they sat down upon the floor
together, Sara clasping her knees with her arms, and
Ermengarde rolled up in her shawl. Ermengarde
looked at the odd, big-eyed little face adoringly.
“I couldn’t bear it any
more,” she said. “I dare say you
could live without me, Sara; but I couldn’t
live without you. I was nearly dead.
So tonight, when I was crying under the bedclothes,
I thought all at once of creeping up here and just
begging you to let us be friends again.”
“You are nicer than I am,”
said Sara. “I was too proud to try and
make friends. You see, now that trials have
come, they have shown that I am not a nice child.
I was afraid they would. Perhaps” wrinkling
her forehead wisely “that is what
they were sent for.”
“I don’t see any good in them,”
said Ermengarde stoutly.
“Neither do I to
speak the truth,” admitted Sara, frankly.
“But I suppose there might be good in
things, even if we don’t see it. There
might” Doubtfully “Be
good in Miss Minchin.”
Ermengarde looked round the attic
with a rather fearsome curiosity.
“Sara,” she said, “do
you think you can bear living here?”
Sara looked round also.
“If I pretend it’s quite
different, I can,” she answered; “or if
I pretend it is a place in a story.”
She spoke slowly. Her imagination
was beginning to work for her. It had not worked
for her at all since her troubles had come upon her.
She had felt as if it had been stunned.
“Other people have lived in
worse places. Think of the Count of Monte Cristo
in the dungeons of the Chateau d’If. And
think of the people in the Bastille!”
“The Bastille,” half whispered
Ermengarde, watching her and beginning to be fascinated.
She remembered stories of the French Revolution which
Sara had been able to fix in her mind by her dramatic
relation of them. No one but Sara could have
A well-known glow came into Sara’s eyes.
“Yes,” she said, hugging
her knees, “that will be a good place to pretend
about. I am a prisoner in the Bastille.
I have been here for years and years and
years; and everybody has forgotten about me. Miss
Minchin is the jailer and Becky” a
sudden light adding itself to the glow in her eyes “Becky
is the prisoner in the next cell.”
She turned to Ermengarde, looking
quite like the old Sara.
“I shall pretend that,”
she said; “and it will be a great comfort.”
Ermengarde was at once enraptured and awed.
“And will you tell me all about
it?” she said. “May I creep up here
at night, whenever it is safe, and hear the things
you have made up in the day? It will seem as
if we were more ‘best friends’ than ever.”
“Yes,” answered Sara,
nodding. “Adversity tries people, and mine
has tried you and proved how nice you are.”