Read CHAPTER XVII - “THE SWEETS ARE POISONED” of A World of Girls The Story of a School , free online book, by L. T. Meade, on ReadCentral.com.

“I think, my dear madam,” said Mr. Everard to Mrs. Willis, “that you must believe your pupil.  She has not refused to confess to you from any stubbornness, but from the simple reason that she has nothing to confess.  I am firmly convinced that things are as she stated them, Mrs. Willis.  There is a mystery here which we neither of us can explain, but which we must unravel.”

Then Mrs. Willis and the clergyman had a long and anxious talk together.  It lasted for a long time, and some of its results at least were manifest the next morning, for, just before the morning’s work began, Mrs. Willis came to the large school-room, and, calling Annie Forest to her side, laid her hand on the young girl’s shoulder.

“I wish to tell you all, young ladies,” she said, “that I completely and absolutely exonerate Annie Forest from having any part in the disgraceful occurrence which took place in this school-room a short time ago.  I allude, of course, as you all know, to the book which was found tampered with in Cecil Temple’s desk.  Some one else in this room is guilty, and the mystery has still to be unraveled, and the guilty girl has still to come forward and declare herself.  If she is willing at this moment to come to me here, and fully and freely confess her sin, I will quite forgive her.”

The head mistress paused, and, still with her hand on Annie’s shoulder, looked anxiously down the long room.  The love and forgiveness which she felt shone in her eyes at this moment.  No girl need have feared aught but tenderness from her just then.

No one stirred; the moment passed, and a look of sternness returned to the mistress’ fine face.

“No,” she said, in her emphatic and clear tones, “the guilty girl prefers waiting until God discovers her sin for her.  My dear, whoever you are, that hour is coming, and you cannot escape from it.  In the meantime, girls, I wish you all to receive Annie Forest as quite innocent.  I believe in her, so does Mr. Everard, and so must you.  Any one who treats Miss Forest except as a perfectly innocent and truthful girl incurs my severe displeasure.  My dear, you may return to your seat.”

Annie, whose face was partly hidden by her curly hair during the greater part of this speech, now tossed it back, and raised her brown eyes with a look of adoration in them to her teacher.  Mrs. Willis’ face, however, still looked harassed.  Her eyes met Annie’s, but no corresponding glow was kindled in them; their glance was just, calm, but cold.

The childish heart was conscious of a keen pang of agony, and Annie went back to her lessons without any sense of exultation.

The fact was this:  Mrs. Willis’ judgment and reason had been brought round by Mr. Everard’s words, but in her heart of hearts, almost unknown to herself, there still lingered a doubt of the innocence of her wayward and pretty pupil.  She said over and over to herself that she really now quite believed in Annie Forest, but then would come those whisperings from her pained and sore heart.

“Why did she ever make a caricature of one who has been as a mother to her?  If she made one caricature, could she not make another?  Above all things, if she did not do it, who did?”

Mrs. Willis turned away from these unpleasant whispers ­she would not let them stay with her, and turned a deaf ear to their ugly words.  She had publicly declared in the school her belief in Annie’s absolute innocence, but at the moment when her pupil looked up at her with a world of love and adoration in her gaze, she found to her own infinite distress that she could not give her the old love.

Annie went back to her companions, and bent her head over her lessons, and tried to believe that she was very thankful and very happy, and Cecil Temple managed to whisper a gentle word of congratulation to her, and at the twelve o’clock walk Annie perceived that a few of her schoolfellows looked at her with friendly eyes again.  She perceived now that when she went into the play-room she was not absolutely tabooed, and that, if she chose, she might speedily resume her old reign of popularity.  Annie had, to a remarkable extent, the gift of inspiring love, and her old favorites would quickly have flocked back to their sovereign had she so willed it.  It is certainly true that the girls to whom the whole story was known in all its bearings found it difficult to understand how Annie could be innocent; but Mr. Everard’s and Mrs. Willis’ assertions were too potent to be disregarded, and most of the girls were only too willing to let the whole affair slide from their minds, and to take back their favorite Annie to their hearts again.

Annie, however, herself did not so will it.  In the play-room she fraternized with the little ones who were alike her friends in adversity and sunshine; she rejected almost coldly the overtures of her old favorites, but played, and romped, and was merry with the children of the sixth class.  She even declined Cecil’s invitation to come and sit with her in her drawing-room.

“Oh, no,” she said.  “I hate being still; I am in no humor for talk.  Another time, Cecil, another time.  Now then, Sybil, my beauty, get well on my back, and I’ll be the willing dog carrying you round and round the room.”

Annie’s face had not a trace of care or anxiety on it, but her eyes would not quite meet Cecil’s, and Cecil sighed as she turned away, and her heart, too, began to whisper little, mocking, ugly doubts of poor Annie.

During the half-hour before tea that evening Annie was sitting on the floor with a small child in her lap, and two other little ones tumbling about her, when she was startled by a shower of lollipops being poured over her head, down her neck, and into her lap.  She started up and met the sleepy gaze of Susan Drummond.

“That’s to congratulate you, miss,” said Susan; “you’re a very lucky girl to have escaped as you did.”

The little ones began putting Susan’s lollipops vigorously into their mouths.  Annie sprang to her feet shaking the sticky sweetmeats out of her dress on to the floor.

“What have I escaped from?” she asked, turning round and facing her companion haughtily.

“Oh, dear me!” said Susan, stepping back a pace or two.  “I ­ah ­” stifling a yawn ­“I only meant you were very near getting into an ugly scrape.  It’s no affair of mine, I’m sure; only I thought you’d like the lollipops.”

“No, I don’t like them at all,” said Annie, “nor you, either.  Go back to your own companions, please.”

Susan sulkily walked away, and Annie stooped down on the floor.

“Now, little darlings,” she said, “you mustn’t eat those.  No, no, they are not good at all; and they have come from one of Annie’s enemies.  Most likely they are full of poison.  Let us collect them all, every one, and we will throw them into the fire before we go to tea.”

“But I don’t think there’s any poison in them,” said little Janie West in a regretful tone, as she gobbled down a particularly luscious chocolate cream; “they are all big, and fat, and bursty, and so sweet, Annie, dear.”

“Never mind, Janie, they are dangerous sweeties all the same.  Come, come, throw them into my apron, and I will run over and toss them into the fire, and we’ll have time for a game of leap-frog before tea; oh, fie, Judy,” as a very small fat baby began to whimper, “you would not eat the sweeties of one of Annie’s enemies.”

This last appeal was successful.  The children made a valiant effort, and dashed the tempting goodies into Annie’s alapaca apron.  When they were all collected, she marched up the play-room and in the presence of Susan Drummond, Hester Thornton, Cecil Temple, and several more of her school companions, threw them into the fire.

“So much for that overture, Miss Drummond,” she said, making a mock courtesy, and returning once more to the children.