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

Annie ran out of the field, mounted the stile which led into the wood, and stood there until the gypsy man and girl, and the boy with the donkey, had finally disappeared.  Then she left her hiding-place, and taking her little gingham bag out of the long grass, secured it once more in the front of her dress.  She felt queer and uncomfortable in her new dress, and the gypsy girl’s heavy shoes tired her feet; but she was not to be turned from her purpose by any manner of discomforts, and she started bravely on her long trudge over the dusty roads, for her object was to follow the gypsies to their next encampment, about ten miles away.  She had managed, with some tact, to obtain a certain amount of information from the delighted gypsy girl.  The girl told Annie that she was very glad they were going from here; that this was a very dull place, and that they would not have stayed so long but for Mother Rachel, who, for some reasons of her own, had refused to stir.

Here the girl drew herself up short, and colored under her dark skin.  But Annie’s tact never failed.  She even yawned a little, and seemed scarcely to hear the girl’s words.

Now, in the distance, she followed these people.

In her disguise, uncomfortable as it was, she felt tolerably safe.  Should any of the people in Lavender House happen to pass her on the way, they would never recognize Annie Forest in this small gypsy maiden.  When she did approach the gypsies’ dwelling she might have some hope of passing as one of themselves.  The only one whom she had really to fear was the girl with whom she had changed clothes, and she trusted to her wits to keep out of this young person’s way.

When Zillah, her old gypsy nurse, had charmed her long ago with gypsy legends and stories, Annie had always begged to hear about the fair English children whom the gypsies stole, and Zillah had let her into some secrets which partly accounted for the fact that so few of these children are ever recovered.

She walked very fast now; her depression was gone, a great excitement, a great longing, a great hope, keeping her up.  She forgot that she had eaten nothing since breakfast; she forgot everything in all the world now but her great love for little Nan, and her desire to lay down her very life, if necessary, to rescue Nan from the terrible fate which awaited her if she was brought up as a gypsy’s child.

Annie, however, was unaccustomed to such long walks, and besides, recent events had weakened her, and by the time she reached Sefton ­for her road lay straight through this little town ­she was so hot and thirsty that she looked around her anxiously to find some place of refreshment.

In an unconscious manner she paused before a restaurant, where she and several other girls of Lavender House had more than once been regaled with buns and milk.

The remembrance of the fresh milk and the nice buns came gratefully before the memory of the tired child now.  Forgetting her queer attire, she went into the shop, and walked boldly up to the counter.

Annie’s disguise, however, was good, and the young woman who was serving, instead of bending forward with the usual gracious “What can I get for you, miss?” said very sharply: 

“Go away at once, little girl; we don’t allow beggars here; leave the shop instantly.  No, I have nothing for you.”

Annie was about to reply rather hotly, for she had an idea that even a gypsy’s money might purchase buns and milk, when she was suddenly startled, and almost terrified into betraying herself, by encountering the gentle and fixed stare of Miss Jane Bruce, who had been leaning over the counter and talking to one of the shop-women when Annie entered.

“Here is a penny for you, little girl,” she said.  “You can get a nice hunch of stale bread for a penny in the shop at the corner of the High street.”

Annie’s eyes flashed back at the little lady, her lips quivered, and, clasping the penny, she rushed out of the shop.

“My dear,” said Miss Jane, turning to her sister, “did you notice the extraordinary likeness that little gypsy girl bore to Annie Forest?”

Miss Agnes sighed.  “Not particularly, love,” she answered; “but I scarcely looked at her.  I wonder if our dear little Annie is any happier than she was.  Ah, I think we have done here.  Good-afternoon, Mrs. Tremlett.”

The little old ladies trotted off, giving no more thoughts to the gypsy child.

Poor Annie almost ran down the street, and never paused till she reached a shop of much humbler appearance, where she was served with some cold slices of German sausage, some indifferent bread and butter, and milk by no means over-good.  The coarse fare, and the rough people who surrounded her, made the poor child feel both sick and frightened.  She found she could only keep up her character by remaining almost silent, for the moment she opened her lips people turned round and stared at her.

She paid for her meal, however, and presently found herself at the other side of Sefton, and in a part of the country which was comparatively strange to her.  The gypsies’ present encampment was about a mile away from the town of Oakley, a much larger place than Sefton.  Sefton and Oakley lay about six miles apart.  Annie trudged bravely on, her head aching; for, of course, as a gypsy girl, she could use no parasol to shade her from the sun.  At last the comparative cool of the evening arrived, and the little girl gave a sigh of relief, and looked forward to her bed and supper at Oakley.  She had made up her mind to sleep there, and to go to the gypsies’ encampment very early in the morning.  It was quite dark by the time she reached Oakley, and she was now so tired, and her feet so blistered from walking in the gypsy girl’s rough shoes, that she could scarcely proceed another step.  The noise and the size of Oakley, too, bewildered and frightened her.  She had learned a lesson in Sefton, and dared not venture into the more respectable streets.  How could she sleep in those hot, common, close houses?  Surely it would be better for her to lie down under a cool hedgerow ­there could be no real cold on this lovely summer’s night, and the hours would quickly pass, and the time soon arrive when she must go boldly in search of Nan.  She resolved to sleep in a hayfield which took her fancy just outside the town, and she only went into Oakley for the purpose of buying some bread and milk.

Annie was so far fortunate as to get a refreshing draught of really good milk from a woman who stood by a cottage door, and who gave her a piece of girdle-cake to eat with it.

“You’re one of the gypsies, my dear?” said the woman.  “I saw them passing in their caravans an hour back.  No doubt you are for taking up your old quarters in the copse, just alongside of Squire Thompson’s long acre field.  How is it you are not with the rest of them, child?”

“I was late in starting,” said Annie.  “Can you tell me the best way to get from here to the long acre field?”

“Oh, you take that turnstile, child, and keep in the narrow path by the cornfields; it’s two miles and a half from here as the crow flies.  No, no, my dear, I don’t want your pennies; but you might humor my little girl here by telling her fortune ­she’s wonderful taken by the gypsy folk.”

Annie colored painfully.  The child came forward, and she crossed her hand with a piece of silver.  She looked at the little palm and muttered something about being rich and fortunate, and marrying a prince in disguise, and having no trouble whatever.

“Eh! but that’s a fine lot, is yours, Peggy,” said the gratified mother.

Peggy, however, aged nine, had a wiser head on her young shoulders.

“She didn’t tell no proper fortune,” she said disparagingly, when Annie left the cottage.  “She didn’t speak about no crosses, and no biting disappointments, and no bleeding wounds.  I don’t believe in her, I don’t.  I like fortunes mixed, not all one way; them fortunes ain’t natural, and I don’t believe she’s no proper gypsy girl.”