Read CHAPTER XXII - IN BURN CASTLE WOOD of A World of Girls The Story of a School , free online book, by L. T. Meade, on ReadCentral.com.

In concentrating her thoughts of revenge on Hester, Annie ceased to trouble her head about Dora Russell.  She considered Hester a crueler enemy than Dora.  Hester belonged to her own set, worked in her own class, and would naturally, had things not turned out so unjustly, so unfairly, have been her friend, and not her enemy.  Dora had nothing to say to Annie, and before Hester’s advent into the school had scarcely noticed her existence.  Annie therefore concentrated all her powers on punishing Hester.  This gave her an aim and an occupation, and at first she felt that her revenge might give her real pleasure.

Susan Drummond now shared Annie’s bedroom, and Annie was rather startled one evening to hear this phlegmatic young person burst out into a strong tirade against Hester and Dora.  Dora had managed, for some inexplicable reason, to offend Susan, and Susan now looked to Annie for sympathy, and boldly suggested that they should get up what she was pleased to called “a lark” between them for the punishment of this very dignified young lady.

Annie had never liked Susan, and she now stared at her, and said, in her quick way: 

“You won’t catch me helping you in any of your larks.  I’ve had trouble enough on that score as it is.”

Susan gazed at her stupidly, and a dull red spread over her face.

“But I thought you hated Dora and Hester,” she said ­“I’m sure they hate you.”

Annie was silent.

“You do hate them, don’t you?” persisted Miss Drummond.

“It’s nothing to you what I feel toward them, Susy,” said Annie.  “Please don’t disturb me with any more of your chatter; I am very sleepy, and you are keeping me awake.”

Thus silenced, Susan had to content herself by turning on her back, and going into the land of dreams; but she was evidently a good deal surprised and disappointed, and began to entertain a certain respect, and even fear, of Annie which had been hitherto unknown to her.

Meanwhile Hester was very busy, very happy, and more satisfied ­brighter and better employed than she had ever been in her life before.  Nan’s love satisfied the affectionate side of her nature, and all her intellect was strained to the utmost to win honors in the coming struggle.

She had stuck firmly to her resolve to work for the English composition prize, and she firmly made up her own mind to leave no stone unturned to win it.  What affection she possessed for Miss Russell was not at all of a character to prevent her from thoroughly enjoying taking the prize out of her hands.  Her love for Dora had been fed by vanity, and was not at all of a deep or noble character.  She was some time carefully choosing the subject of her theme, and at last she resolved to write a brief historical description of the last days of Marie Antoinette.  To write properly on this subject she had to read up a great deal, and had to find references in books which were not usually allowed as school-room property.  Mrs. Willis, however, always allowed the girls who were working for the English composition prize to have access to her rather extensive library, and here Hester was often to be found during play-hours.  Two evenings in the week were also taken up in preparation for the coming plays, and as Hester was to take rather an important part in one, and a small character in another, she was obliged to devote herself to getting up her parts during the weekly half-holidays.  Thus every moment was busy, and, except at night, she had little time to devote herself to Nan.

Nan slept in a pretty crib in Hester’s room, and each evening the young girl knelt down by her sister’s side, and gazed at her with love, which was almost motherly, swelling in her breast.

All that was best of Hester was drawn out at these moments; something greater than ambition ­something far and away above school triumphs and school jealousies spoke then in her heart of hearts.  These moments found her capable of being both sympathizing and forgiving; these moments followed out in her daily life might have made Hester almost great.  Now was the time, with her eyes full of tears and her lips trembling with emotion, for Annie Forest to have caught a glimpse of the divine in Hester; the hardness, the pride, the haughty spirit were all laid aside, and hers was the true child-heart as she knelt by the sleeping baby.  Hester prayed earnestly at these moments, and, in in truth, Nan did better for her than any sermon; better for her than even Mrs. Willis’ best influences.  Nan was as the voice of God to her sister.

Hester, in her very busy life, had no time to notice, however, a very slight and almost imperceptible change in bright little Nan.  In the mornings she was in too great a hurry to pay much heed to the little one’s chatter; in the afternoons she had scarcely an instant to devote to her, and when she saw her playing happily with the other children she was quite content, and always supposed that when a spare half-hour did come in her busy life, Nan would rush to her with the old ecstasy, and give her the old devotion.

One day, toward the end of a very fine May, the girls were all to go for a picnic to some woods about four miles away.  They had looked forward for several days to this relaxation, and were in the highest state of delight and the wildest spirits.  After an early dinner they were to drive in several large wagonettes to the place of rendezvous, where they were to be regaled with gypsy-tea, and were to have a few hours in the lovely woods of Burn Castle, one of the show places of the neighborhood.  Mrs. Willis had invited the Misses Bruce to accompany them, and they were all to leave the house punctually at two o’clock.  The weather was wonderfully fine and warm, and it was decided that all the children, even Nan, should go.

Perhaps none of the girls looked forward to this day’s pleasure with greater joy than did Hester; she determined to make it a real holiday, and a real time of relaxation.  She would forget her English theme; she would cease to worry herself about Marie Antoinette; she would cease to repeat her part in the coming play; and she would devote herself exclusively and determinately to Nan’s pleasure.  She pictured the little one’s raptures; she heard her gay shouts of joy, her ceaseless little rippling chatter, her baby glee, and, above all things, her intense happiness at being with her own Hetty for the greater part of a whole day.  Hester would ride her on her shoulder, would race with her; all her usual companions would be as nothing to her on this occasion, she would give herself up solely to Nan.

As she was dressing that morning she said a word or two to the child about the coming treat.

“We’ll light a fire in the wood, Nan, and hang a kettle over it, and make tea ­such good tea; won’t it be nice?”

Nan clapped her hands.  “And may I take out my little ummabella (umbrella), case it might wain?” she asked anxiously.

Hester flew to her and kissed her.

“You funny darling!” she said.  “Oh, we shall have such a day!  You’ll be with your own Hetty all day long ­your own Hetty; won’t you be glad?”

“Me am,” said Nan; “own Hetty, and own Annie; me am glad.”

Hester scarcely heard the last words, for the prayer-gong sounded, and she had to fly down stairs.

At dinner time the girls were discussing who would go with each, and all were very merry and full of fun.

“Miss Danesbury will take the little children,” said Miss Good.  “Mrs. Willis says that all the little ones are to be in Miss Danesbury’s charge.”

“Oh, please,” said Hester, suddenly, “may Nan come with me, Miss Good?  She’ll be so disappointed if she doesn’t, and I’ll take such care of her.”

Miss Good nodded a careless acquiescence, and Hester proceeded with her dinner, feeling thoroughly satisfied.

Immediately after dinner the girls flew to their rooms to prepare for their expedition.  Hastily opening a drawer, Hester pulled out a white frock, white pique pelisse, and washing hat for Nan ­she meant her darling to look as charming as possible.

“Oh, dear, Miss Danesbury should have brought her here by now,” she said to herself impatiently, and then, hearing the crunching of carriage wheels on the drive, she flew to the bell and rang it.

In a few moments one of the maids appeared.

“Do you know where Miss Nan is, Alice?  She is to go to Burn Castle with me, and I want to dress her, for it is nearly time to go.”

Alice looked a little surprised.

“If you please, miss,” she said, “I think Miss Nan has just gone.”

“What do you mean, Alice?  Miss Good said especially she was to go with me.”

“I know nothing about that, miss; I only know that I saw Miss Forest carrying her down stairs in her arms about three minutes ago, and they went off in the wagonette with all the other little children and Miss Danesbury.”

Hester stood perfectly still, her color changed from red to white; for full half a minute she was silent.  Then, hearing voices from below calling to her, she said in a cold, quiet tone: 

“That will do, Alice; thank you for letting me know.”

She turned to her drawer and put back Nan’s white and pretty things, and also replaced a new and very becoming shady hat which she had meant to wear herself.  In her old winter hat, and looking almost untidy for her, she walked slowly down stairs and took her place in the wagonette which was drawn up at the door.

Cecil Temple and one or two other girls whom Hester liked very much were in the same wagonette, but she scarcely cared to talk to them, and only joined in their laughter by a strong effort.  She was deeply wounded, but her keenest present desire was to hide any feelings of jealousy she had toward Annie from the quick eyes of her schoolfellows.

“Why,” suddenly exclaimed Julia Morris, a particularly unobservant girl, “I thought you were going to bring that dear baby sister with you, Hester.  Oh, I do hope there is nothing the matter with her.”

“Nan has gone on in the first wagonette with the little children,” said Hester as cheerfully as she could speak, but she colored slightly, and saw that Cecil was regarding her attentively.

Susan Drummond exclaimed suddenly: 

“I saw Annie Forest rushing down the stairs with little Nan, and Nan had her arms round her neck, and was laughing merrily.  You need not be anxious about Nan, Hester; she was quite content to go with Annie.”

“I did not say I was anxious,” replied Hester in a cold voice.  “How very beautiful that avenue of beech trees is, Cecil!”

“But Annie heard Miss Good say that you were to take Nan,” persisted Julia Morris.  “She could not but have noticed it, for you did flush up so, Hester, and looked so eager.  I never saw any one more in earnest about a trifle in my life; it was impossible for Annie not to have heard.”

“The great thing is that Nan is happy,” said Hester in a fretted voice.  “Do let us change the subject, girls.”

Cecil instantly began talking about the coming plays, and soon the conversation became of an absorbing character, and Hester’s voice was heard oftener than the others, and she laughed more frequently than her companions.

For all this forced merriment, however, Cecil did not fail to observe that when Hester got to the place of meeting at Burn Castle she looked around her with a quick and eager glance.  Then the color faded from her face, and her eyes grew dim.

That look of pain on Hester’s face was quite enough for kind-hearted Cecil.  She had thrown herself on the grass with an exclamation of delight, but in an instant she was on her feet.

“Now, of course, the first thing is to find little Nan,” she said; “she’ll be missing you dreadfully, Hetty.”

Cecil held out her hand to Hester to run with her through the wood, but, to her surprise, Hester drew back.

“I’m tired,” she said; “I daresay we shall find Nan presently.  She is sure to be safe, as she is under Miss Danesbury’s care.”

Cecil made no remark, but set off by herself to find the little children.  Presently, standing on a little knoll, and putting her two hands round her lips, so as to form a speaking trumpet, she shouted to Hester.  Hester came slowly and apparently unwillingly toward her, but when she got to the foot of the knoll, Cecil flew down, and, taking her by the hand, ran with her to the top.

“Oh, do come quick!” she exclaimed; “it is such a pretty sight.”

Down in the valley about fifty yards away were the ten or twelve little children who formed the infant portion of the school.  Miss Danesbury was sitting at some distance off quietly reading, and the children, decked with flowers, and carrying tall grasses and reeds in their hands, were flying round and round in a merry circle, while in their midst, and the center attraction, stood Annie, whose hat was tossed aside, and whose bright, curling hair was literally crowned with wild flowers.  On Annie’s shoulder stood little Nan, carefully and beautifully poised, and round Nan’s wavy curls was a starry wreath of wood-anémones.  Nan was shouting gleefully and clapping her hands, while Annie balanced her slightest movement with the greatest agility, and kept her little feet steady on her shoulders with scarcely an effort.  As the children ran round and round Annie she waltzed gracefully backward and forward to meet them, and they all sang snatches of nursery rhymes.  When Cecil and Hester appeared they had reached in their varied collection: 

                    “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
                    Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.”

Here Nan exclaimed, in her clear, high-pitched voice: 

“Me no fall, Annie,” and the small children on the ground clapped their hands and blew kisses to her.

“Isn’t it pretty?  Isn’t Annie sweet with children?” said Cecil, looking round to Hester with all the admiration she felt for her friend shining in her face.  The expression, however, which Hester wore at that moment really startled Cecil; she was absolutely colorless, and presently she called aloud in a harsh, strained voice: 

“Be careful of her!  How wicked of you to put her like that on your shoulder!  She will fall ­yes, I know she will fall; oh, do be careful!”

Hester’s voice startled the children, who ceased singing and dancing; Annie made a hasty step forward, and one little voice alone kept singing out the words: 

“Humpty-Dumpty got a great fall!” ­

when there was a crash and a cry, and Nan, in some inexplicable way, had fallen backward from Annie’s shoulders.

In one instant Hester was in the midst of the group.

“Don’t touch her,” she said, as Annie flew to pick up the child, who, falling with some force on her head, had been stunned; “don’t touch her ­don’t dare!  It was your doing; you did it on purpose ­you wished to do it!”

“You are unjust,” said Annie, in a low tone.  “Nan was perfectly safe until you startled her.  Like all the rest you are unjust.  Nan would have come to no harm if you had not spoken.”

Hester did not vouchsafe another word.  She sat on the ground with the unconscious and pretty little flower-crowned figure laid across her lap; she was terrified, and thought in her inexperience that Nan must be dead.

At the first mention of the accident Cecil had flown to fetch some water, and when she and Miss Danesbury applied it to little Nan’s temples, she presently sighed, and opened her brown eyes wide.

“I hope ­I trust she is not much hurt,” said Miss Danesbury; “but I think it safest to take her home at once.  Cecil, dear, can you do anything about fetching a wagonette round to the stile at the entrance of the wood?  Now the puzzle is, who is to take care of the rest of the little children?  If only they were under Miss Good’s care, I should breathe more easily.”

“I am going home with Nan,” said Hester in a hard voice.

“Of course, my love; no one would think of parting you from your little sister,” said the governess, soothingly.

“If you please, Miss Danesbury,” said Annie, whose face was quite as pale as Hester’s, and her eyes heavy as though she longed to cry, “will you trust me with the little ones?  If you do, I will promise to take them straight to Miss Good, and to be most careful of them.”

Miss Danesbury’s gentle and kind face looked relieved.

“Thank you, Annie ­of course I trust you, dear.  Take the children at once to the meeting-place under the great oak, and wait there until Miss Good appears.”  Annie suddenly sprang forward, and threw her arms round Miss Danesbury’s neck.

“Miss Danesbury, you comfort me,” she said, in a kind of stifled voice, and then she ran off with the children.