Read CHAPTER XXXVIII - IS SHE STILL GUILTY? of A World of Girls The Story of a School , free online book, by L. T. Meade, on ReadCentral.com.

On the evening of that day Cecil Temple knocked at the door of Mrs. Willis’ private sitting-room.

“Ah, Cecil! is that you?” said her governess.  “I am always glad to see you, dear; but I happen to be particularly busy to-night.  Have you anything in particular to say to me?”

“I only wanted to talk about Annie, Mrs. Willis.  You believe in her at last, don’t you?”

“Believe in her at last!” said the head-mistress in a tone of astonishment and deep pain.  “No, Cecil, my dear; you ask too much of my faith.  I do not believe in Annie.”

Cecil paused; she hesitated, and seemed half afraid to proceed.

“Perhaps,” she said at last in a slightly timid tone, “you have not seen her since this morning?”

“No; I have been particularly busy.  Besides, the eight culprits are under punishment; part of their punishment is that I will not see them.”

“Don’t you think, Mrs. Willis,” said Cecil, “that Annie made rather a brave confession this morning?”

“I admit, my dear, that Annie spoke in somewhat of her old impulsive way; she blamed herself, and did not try to screen her misdemeanors behind her companions.  In this one particular she reminded me of the old Annie who, notwithstanding all her faults, I used to trust and love.  But as to her confession being very brave, my dear Cecil, you must remember that she did not confess until she was obliged; she knew, and so did all the other girls, that I could have got the truth out of old Betty had they chosen to keep their lips sealed.  Then, my dear, consider what she did.  On the very night that I was away she violated the trust I had in her ­she bade me ‘good-bye’ with smiles and sweet glances, and then she did this in my absence.  No, Cecil, I fear poor Annie is not what we thought her.  She has done untold mischief during the half-year, and has willfully lied and deceived me.  I find, on comparing dates, that it was on the very night of the girls’ picnic that Dora’s theme was changed.  There is no doubt whatever that Annie was the guilty person.  I did my best to believe in her, and to depend on Mr. Everard’s judgment of her character, but I confess I can do so no longer.  Cecil, dear.  I am not surprised that you look pale and sad.  No, we will not give up this poor Annie:  we will try to love her even through her sin.  Ah! poor child, poor child! how much I have prayed for her!  She was to me as a child of my own.  Now, dear Cecil, I must ask you to leave me.”

Cecil went slowly out of her governess’ presence, and, wandering across the wide stone hall, she entered the play-room.  It happened to be a wet night, and the room was full of girls, who hung together in groups and whispered softly.  There were no loud voices, and, except from the little ones, there was no laughter.  A great depression hung over the place, and few could have recognized the happy girls of Lavender House in these sad young faces.  Cecil walked slowly into the room, and presently finding Hester Thornton, she sat down by her side.

“I can’t get Mrs. Willis to see it,” she said very sadly.

“What?” asked Hester.

“Why, that we have got our old Annie back again; that she did take the girls out to that picnic, and was as wild, and reckless, and naughty as possible about it; and then, just like the old Annie I have always known, the moment the fun was over she began to repent, and that she has gone on repenting ever since, which has accounted for her poor sad little face and white cheeks.  Of course she longed to tell ­Nora and Phyllis have told me so ­but she would not betray them.  Now at last there is a load off her heart, and, though she is in great disgrace and punishment, she is not very unhappy.  I went to see her an hour ago, and I saw in her face that my own darling Annie has returned.  But what do you think Mrs. Willis does, Hester?  She is so hurt and disappointed, that she believes Annie is guilty of the other thing ­she believes that Annie stole Dora’s theme, and that she caricatured her in my book some time ago.  She believes it ­she is sure of it.  Now, do you think, Hester, that Annie’s face would look quite peaceful and happy to-night if she had only confessed half her faults ­if she had this meanness, this sin, these lies still resting on her soul?  Oh!  I wish Mrs. Willis would see her!  I wish ­I wish! but I can do nothing.  You agree with me, don’t you, Hester?  Just put yourself in Annie’s place, and tell me if you would feel happy, and if your heart would be at rest, if you had only confessed half your sin, and if through you all your schoolfellows were under disgrace and suspicion?  You could not, could you, Hester?  Why, Hester, how white you are!”

“You are so metaphysical,” said Hester, rising; “you quite puzzle me.  How can I put myself in your friend Annie’s place?  I never understood her ­I never wanted to.  Put myself in her place? ­no, certainly that I’m never likely to.  I hope that I shall never be in such a predicament.”

Hester walked away, and Cecil sat still in great perplexity.

Cecil was a girl with a true sense of religion.  The love of God guided every action of her simple and straightforward life.  She was neither beautiful nor clever; but no one in the school was more respected and honored, no one more sincerely loved.  Cecil knew what the peace of God meant, and when she saw even a shadowy reflection of that peace on Annie’s little face, she was right in believing that she must be innocent of the guilt which was attributed to her.

The whole school assembled for prayers that night in the little chapel, and Mr. Everard, who had heard the story of that day’s confession from Mrs. Willis, said a few words appropriate to the occasion to the unhappy young girls.

Whatever effect his words had on the others, and they were very simple and straightforward, Annie’s face grew quiet and peaceful as she listened to them.  The old clergyman assured the girls that God was waiting to forgive those who truly repented, and that the way to repent was to rise up and sin no more.

“The present fun is not worth the after-pain,” he said, in conclusion.  “It is an old saying that stolen waters are sweet, but only at the time; afterward only those who drink of them know the full extent of their bitterness.”

This little address from Mr. Everard strengthened poor Annie for an ordeal which was immediately before her, for Mrs. Willis asked all the school to follow her to the play-room, and there she told them that she was about to restore to them their lost privileges; that circumstances, in her opinion, now so strongly pointed the guilt of the stolen essay in the direction of one girl, that she could no longer ask the school to suffer for her sake.

“She still refuses to confess her sin,” said Mrs. Willis, “but, unless another girl proclaims herself guilty, and proves to me beyond doubt that she drew the caricature which was found in Cecil Temple’s book, and that she changed Dora Russell’s essay, and, imitating her hand, put another in its place, I proclaim the guilty person to be Annie Forest, and on her alone I visit my displeasure.  You can retire to your rooms, young ladies.  Tomorrow morning Lavender House resumes its old cheerfulness.”