Read CHAPTER XXI - STEALING HEARTS of A World of Girls The Story of a School , free online book, by L. T. Meade, on ReadCentral.com.

When Annie ran out of the south parlor she found herself suddenly face to face with Mrs. Willis.

“Well, my dear child,” said the head mistress in her kindest voice, “where are you running to?  But I suppose I must not ask; you are, of course, one of the busy and secret conclave in the south parlor?”

“No.  I have left them,” said Annie, bending her head, and after her usual habit when agitated, shaking her hair about her face.

“Left them?” repeated Mrs. Willis, “you mean, dear, that they have sent you for some message.”

“No.  I am not one of them.  May I go into the garden, Mrs. Willis?”

“Certainly, my dear.”

Annie did not even glance at her governess.  She pushed aside the baize door, and found herself in the great stone hall which led to the play-room and school-room.  Her garden hat hung on a peg in the hall, and she tossed it off its place, and holding it in her hand ran toward the side door which opened directly into the garden.  She had a wild wish to get to the shelter of the forsaken hammock and there cry out her whole heart.  The moment she got into the open air, however, she was met by a whole troop of the little children, who were coming in after their usual short exercise before going to bed.  Miss Danesbury was with them, and when Annie ran out by the open door, she entered holding two little ones by the hands.  Last in this group toddled Hester’s little sister Nan.  The moment she saw Annie, her little face broke into smiles, she held out two hands eagerly, and fled to the young girl’s side.

“Where dat pitty toy?” she said, raising her round face to Annie’s; “some one did buy dat toy, and it’s vedy pitty, and me wants it ­where’s dat toy?”

Annie stooped down, and spoke suddenly and impulsively to the little child.

“You shall have the toy for your very own, Nan if you will do something for me?”

Nan’s baby eyes looked straight into Annie’s.

“Me will,” she said emphatically; “me want dat toy.”

“Put your arms, round me, little darling, and give me a great tight hug.”

This request was great fun to Nan, who squeezed her little arms round Annie’s neck, and pressed her dimpled cheek to her lips.

“Dere,” she said triumphantly, “will dat do?”

“Yes, you little treasure, and you’ll try to love me, won’t you?”

“Me do,” said Nan, in a solemn voice; but then Miss Danesbury called her, and she ran into the house.

As Nan trotted into the house she put up her dimpled hand to wipe something from her round cheek ­it was a tear which Annie Forest had left there.

Annie herself, when all the little ones had disappeared, walked slowly and sadly down toward the shady walk.  The sun had just set, and though it was now nearly May, and the evenings long, the wind was sufficiently cold to cause Annie to shiver in her thin house frock.  At all times utterly fearless with regard to her health, she gave it no thought now, but entering the walk where she knew she should not be disturbed, she looked up at the hammock, and wondered whether she should climb into it.  She decided, however, not to do so ­the great and terrible weight of tears which had pressed close to her heart were relieved by Nan’s embrace; she no longer cared to cry until she could cry no longer ­the worst of her pain had been soothed by the sweet baby graciousness of the little one.

Then there darted into poor Annie’s sore heart and perplexed brain that dangerous thought and temptation which was to work so much future pain and trouble.  She already loved little Nan, and Nan, as most children did, had taken a fancy to her.  Annie stood still, and clasped her hands as the dark idea came to her to steal the heart of little Nan from Hester, and so revenge herself on her.  By doing this she would touch Hester in her most vulnerable point ­she would take from her what she valued most.  The temptation came swiftly, and Annie listened to it, and thought how easy it would be to carry it into effect.  She knew well that no little child could resist her when she chose to exercise her charms ­it would be easy, easy work to make that part of Nan which was most precious all her own.  Annie became fascinated by the idea; how completely then she would have revenged all her wrongs on Hester!  Some day Hester would bitterly repent of her unjust prejudice toward her; some day Hester would come to her, and beg of her in agony to give her back her darling’s love; ah! when that day came it would be her turn to triumph.

She felt more than satisfied as the temptation grew upon her; she shut out persistently from her view all the other side of the picture; she would not let herself think that the work she was about to undertake was cruel and mean.  Hester had been more than unjust, and she was going to punish her.

Annie paced faster and faster up and down the shady walk, and whenever her resolution wavered, the memory of Hester’s face as she had seen it the same night in the south parlor came visibly back and strengthened it.  Yes, her turn had come at last Hester had contrived since her entrance into the school to make Annie’s life thoroughly miserable.  Well, never mind, it was Annie’s turn now to make her wretched.