Read CHAPTER XLVI - FOR LOVE OF NAN of A World of Girls The Story of a School , free online book, by L. T. Meade, on ReadCentral.com.

Now was Annie’s time.  “Tiger,” she said, for she had heard the men calling the dog’s name, “I want to go right down into that hole in the ground, and you are to come with me.  Don’t let us lose a moment, good dog.”

The dog wagged his tail, capered about in front of Annie, and then with a wonderful shrewdness ran before her to the broken wall, where he stood with his head bent downward and his eyes fixed on the ground.

Annie pulled and tugged at the loose stones; they were so heavy and cunningly arranged that she wondered how the little maid, who was smaller than herself, had managed to remove them.  She saw quickly, however, that they were arranged with a certain leverage, and that the largest stone, that which formed the real entrance to the underground passage, was balanced in its place in such a fashion that when she leaned on a certain portion of it, it moved aside, and allowed plenty of room for her to go down into the earth.

Very dark and dismal and uninviting did the rude steps, which led nobody knew where, appear.  For one moment Annie hesitated; but the thought of Nan hidden somewhere in this awful wretchedness nerved her courage.

“Go first, Tiger, please,” she said, and the dog scampered down, sniffing the earth as he went.  Annie followed him, but she had scarcely got her head below the level of the ground before she found herself in total and absolute darkness; she had unwittingly touched the heavy stone, which had swung back into its place.  She heard Tiger sniffing below, and, calling him to keep by her side, she went very carefully down and down and down, until at last she knew by the increase of air that she must have come to the end of the narrow entrance passage.

She was now able to stand upright, and raising her hand, she tried in vain to find a roof.  The room where she stood, then, must be lofty.  She went forward in the utter darkness very, very slowly; suddenly her head again came in contact with the roof; she made a few steps farther on, and then found that to proceed at all she must go on her hands and knees.  She bent down and peered through the darkness.

“We’ll go on, Tiger,” she said, and, holding the dog’s collar and clinging to him for protection, she crept along the narrow passage.

Suddenly she gave an exclamation of joy ­at the other end of this gloomy passage was light ­faint twilight surely, but still undoubted light, which came down from some chink in the outer world.  Annie came to the end of the passage, and, standing upright, found herself suddenly in a room; a very small and miserable room certainly, but with the twilight shining through it, which revealed not only that it was a room, but a room which contained a heap of straw, a three-legged stool, and two or three cracked cups and saucers.  Here, then, was Mother Rachel’s lair, and here she must look for Nan.

The darkness had been so intense that even the faint twilight of this little chamber had dazzled Annie’s eyes for a moment; the next, however, her vision became clear.  She saw that the straw bed contained a bundle; she went near ­out of the wrapped-up bundle of shawls appeared the head of a child.  The child slept, and moaned in its slumbers.

Annie bent over it and said, “Thank God!” in a tone of rapture, and then, stooping down, she passionately kissed the lips of little Nan.

Nan’s skin had been dyed with the walnut-juice, her pretty, soft hair had been cut short, her dainty clothes had been changed for the most ragged gipsy garments, but still she was undoubtedly Nan, the child whom Annie had come to save.

From her uneasy slumbers the poor little one awoke with a cry of terror.  She could not recognize Annie’s changed face, and clasped her hands before her eyes, and said piteously: 

“Me want to go home ­go ’way, naughty woman, me want my Annie.”

“Little darling!” said Annie, in her sweetest tones.  The changed face had not appealed to Nan, but the old voice went straight to her baby heart; she stopped crying and looked anxiously toward the entrance of the room.

“Tum in, Annie ­me here, Annie ­little Nan want ’oo.”

Annie glanced around her in despair.  Suddenly her quick eyes lighted on a jug of water; she flew to it, and washed and laved her face.

“Coming, darling,” she said, as she tried to remove the hateful dye.  She succeeded partly, and when she came back, to her great joy, the child recognized her.

“Now, little precious, we will get out of this as fast as we can,” said Annie, and, clasping Nan tightly in her arms, she prepared to return by the way she had come.  Then and there, for the first time, there flashed across her memory the horrible fact that the stone door had swung back into its place, and that by no possible means could she open it.  She and Nan and Tiger were buried in a living tomb, and must either stay there and perish, or await the tender mercies of the cruel Mother Rachel.

Nan, with her arms tightly clasped round Annie’s neck, began to cry fretfully.  She was impatient to get out of this dismal place; she was no longer oppressed by fears, for with the Annie whom she loved she felt absolutely safe; but she was hungry and cold and uncomfortable, and it seemed but a step, to little inexperienced Nan, from Annie’s arms to her snug, cheerful nursery at Lavender House.

“Tum, Annie ­tum home, Annie,” she begged and, when Annie did not stir, she began to weep.

In truth, the poor, brave little girl was sadly puzzled, and her first gleam of returning hope lay in the remembrance of Zillah’s words, that there were generally two entrances to these old underground forts.  Tiger, who seemed thoroughly at home in this little room, and had curled himself up comfortably on the heap of straw, had probably often been here before.  Perhaps Tiger knew the way to the second entrance.  Annie called him to her side.

“Tiger,” she said, going down on her knees, and looking full into his ugly but intelligent face, “Nan and I want to go out of this.”

Tiger wagged his stumpy tail.

“We are hungry, Tiger, and we want something to eat, and you’d like a bone, wouldn’t you?”

Tiger’s tail went with ferocious speed, and he licked Annie’s hand.

“There’s no use going back that way, dear dog,” continued the girl, pointing with her arm in the direction they had come.  “The door is fastened, Tiger, and we can’t get out.  We can’t get out because the door is shut.”

The dog’s tail had ceased to wag; he took in the situation, for his whole expression showed dejection, and he drooped his head.

It was now quite evident to Annie that Tiger had been here before, and that on some other occasion in his life he had wanted to get out and could not because the door was shut.

“Now, Tiger,” said Annie, speaking cheerfully, and rising to her feet, “we must get out.  Nan and I are hungry, and you want your bone.  Take us out the other way, good Tiger ­the other way, dear dog.”

She moved instantly toward the little passage; the dog followed her.

“The other way,” she said, and she turned her back on the long narrow passage, and took a step or two into complete darkness.  The dog began to whine, caught hold of her dress, and tried to pull her back.

“Quite right, Tiger, we won’t go that way,” said Annie, instantly.  She returned into the dimly-lighted room.

“Find a way ­find a way out, Tiger,” she said.

The dog evidently understood her; he moved restlessly about the room.  Finally he got up on the bed, pulled and scratched and tore away the straw at the upper end, then, wagging his tail, flew to Annie’s side.  She came back with him.  Beneath the straw was a tiny, tiny trap-door.

“Oh, Tiger!” said the girl; she went down on her knees, and, finding she could not stir it, wondered if this also was kept in its place by a system of balancing.  She was right; after a very little pressing the door moved aside, and Annie saw four or five rudely carved steps.

“Come, Nan,” she said joyfully, “Tiger has saved us; these steps must lead us out.”

The dog, with a joyful whine, went down first, and Annie, clasping Nan tightly in her arms, followed him.  Four, five, six steps they went down; then, to Annie’s great joy, she found that the next step began to ascend.  Up and up she went, cheered by a welcome shaft of light.  Finally she, Nan, and the dog found themselves emerging into the open air, through a hole which might have been taken for a large rabbit burrow.