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

For several days now Annie had lain unconscious in Mrs. Williams’ little bedroom; the kind-hearted woman could not find it in her heart to send the sick child away.  Her husband and the neighbors expostulated with her, and said that Annie was only a poor little waif.

“She has no call on you,” said Jane Allen, a hard-featured woman who lived next door.  “Why should you put yourself out just for a sick lass? and she’ll be much better off in the workhouse infirmary.”

But Mrs. Williams shook her head at her hard-featured and hard-hearted neighbor, and resisted her husband’s entreaties.

“Eh!” she said, “but the poor lamb needs a good bit of mothering, and I misdoubt me she wouldn’t get much of that in the infirmary.”

So Annie stayed, and tossed from side to side of her little bed, and murmured unintelligible words, and grew daily a little weaker and a little more delirious.  The parish doctor called, and shook his head over her; he was not a particularly clever man, but he was the best the Williamses could afford.  While Annie suffered and went deeper into that valley of humiliation and weakness which leads to the gate of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, little Nan played with Peggy Williams, and accustomed herself after the fashion of little children to all the ways of her new and humble home.

It was on the eighth day of Annie’s fever that the Misses Bruce discovered her, and on the evening of that day Mrs. Willis knelt by her little favorite’s bed.  A better doctor had been called in, and all that money could procure had been got now for poor Annie; but the second doctor considered her case even more critical, and said that the close air of the cottage was much against her recovery.

“I didn’t make that caricature; I took the girls into the fairies’ field, but I never pasted that caricature into Cecil’s book.  I know you don’t believe me, Cecil; but do you think I would really do anything so mean about one whom love?  No, No!  I am innocent!  God knows it.  Yes, I am glad of that ­God knows it.”

Over and over in Mrs. Willis’ presence these piteous words would come from the fever-stricken child, but always when she came to the little sentence “God knows I am innocent,” her voice would grow tranquil, and a faint and sweet smile would play round her lips.

Late that night a carriage drew up at a little distance from the cottage, and a moment or two afterward Mrs. Willis was called out of the room to speak to Cecil Temple.

“I have found out the truth about Annie; I have come at once to tell you,” she said; and then she repeated the substance of Hester’s and Susan’s story.

“God help me for having misjudged her,” murmured the head-mistress; then she bade Cecil “good-night” and returned to the sick-room.

The next time Annie broke out with her piteous wail, “They believe me guilty ­Mrs. Willis does ­they all do,” the mistress laid her hand with a firm and gentle pressure on the child’s arm.

“Not now, my dear,” she said, in a slow, clear, and emphatic voice.  “God has shown your governess the truth, and she believes in you.”

The very carefully-uttered words pierced through the clouded brain; for a moment Annie lay quite still, with her bright and lovely eyes fixed on her teacher.

“Is that really you?” she asked.

“I am here, my darling.”

“And you believe in me?”

“I do, most absolutely.”

“God does, too, you know,” answered Annie ­bringing out the words quickly, and turning her head to the other side.  The fever had once more gained supremacy, and she rambled on unceasingly through the dreary night.

Now, however, when the passionate words broke out, “They believe me guilty,” Mrs. Willis always managed to quiet her by saying, “I know you are innocent.”

The next day at noon those girls who had not gone home ­for many had started by the morning train ­were wandering aimlessly about the grounds.

Mr. Everard had gone to see Annie, and had promised to bring back the latest tidings about her.

Hester, holding little Nan’s hand ­for she could scarcely bear to have her recovered treasure out of sight ­had wandered away from the rest of her companions, and had seated herself with Nan under a large oak-tree which grew close to the entrance of the avenue.  She had come here in order to be the very first to see Mr. Everard on his return.  Nan had climbed into Hester’s lap, and Hester had buried her aching head in little Nan’s bright curls, when she started suddenly to her feet and ran forward.  Her quick ears had detected the sound of wheels.

How soon Mr. Everard had returned; surely the news was bad!  She flew to the gate, and held it open in order to avoid the short delay which the lodge-keeper might cause in coming to unfasten it.  She flushed, however, vividly, and felt half inclined to retreat into the shade, when she saw that the gentleman who was approaching was not Mr. Everard, but a tall, handsome, and foreign-looking man, who drove a light dog-cart himself.  The moment he saw Hester with little Nan clinging to her skirts he stopped short.

“Is this Lavender House, little girl?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Hester.

“And can you tell me ­but of course you know ­you are one of the young ladies who live here, eh?”

Hester nodded.

“Then you can tell me if Mrs. Willis is at home ­but of course she is.”

“No, sir,” answered Hester; “I am sorry to tell you that Mrs. Willis is away.  She has been called away on very, very sad business; she won’t come back to-night.”

Something in Hester’s tone caused the stranger to look at her attentively; he jumped off the dog-cart and came to her side.

“See here, Miss ­”

“Thornton,” put in Hester.

“Yes, Miss ­Miss Thornton, perhaps you can manage for me as well as Mrs. Willis; after all I don’t particularly want to see her.  If you belong to Lavender House, you, of course, know my ­I mean you have a schoolmate here, a little, pretty gypsy rogue called Forest ­little Annie Forest.  I want to see her ­can you take me to her?”

“You are her father?” gasped Hester.

“Yes, my dear child, I am her father.  Now you can take me to her at once.”

Hester covered her face.

“Oh, I cannot,” she said ­“I cannot take you to Annie.  Oh, sir, if you knew all, you would feel inclined to kill me.  Don’t ask me about Annie ­don’t, don’t.”

The stranger looked fairly non-plussed and not a little alarmed.  Just at this moment Nan’s tiny fingers touched his hand.

“Me’ll take ’oo to my Annie,” she said ­“mine poor Annie.  Annie’s vedy sick, but me’ll take ’oo.”

The tall, foreign-looking man lifted Nan into his arms.

“Sick, is she?” he answered.  “Look here young lady,” he added, turning to Hester, “whatever you have got to say, I am sure you will try and say it; you will pity a father’s anxiety and master your own feelings.  Where is my little girl?”

Hester hastily dried her tears.

“She is in a cottage near Oakley, sir.”

“Indeed!  Oakley is some miles from here?”

“And she is very ill.”

“What of?”

“Fever; they ­they fear she may die.”

“Take me to her,” said the stranger.  “If she is ill and dying she wants me.  Take me to her at once.  Here, jump on the dog-cart; and, little one, you shall come too.”

So furiously did Captain Forest drive that in a very little over an hour’s time his panting horse stopped at a few steps from the cottage.  He called to a boy to hold him, and, accompanied by Hester, and carrying Nan in his arms, he stood on the threshold of Mrs. Williams’ humble little abode.  Mr. Everard was coming out.

“Hester,” he said, “you here?  I was coming for you.”

“Oh, then she is worse?”

“She is conscious, and has asked for you.  Yes, she is very, very ill.”

“Mr. Everard, this gentleman is Annie’s father.”

Mr. Everard looked pityingly at Captain Forest.

“You have come back at a sad hour, sir,” he said.  “But no, it cannot harm her to see you.  Come with me.”

Captain Forest went first into the sick-room; Hester waited outside.  She had the little kitchen to herself, for all the Williamses, with the exception of the good mother, had moved for the time being to other quarters.  Surely Mr. Everard would come for her in a moment?  Surely Captain Forest, who had gone into the sick-room with Nan in his arms, would quickly return?  There was no sound.  All was absolute quiet.  How soon would Hester be summoned?  Could she ­could she bear to look at Annie’s dying face?  Her agony drove her down on her knees.

“Oh, if you would only spare Annie!” she prayed to God.  Then she wiped her eyes.  This terrible suspense seemed more than she could bear.  Suddenly the bedroom door was softly and silently opened, and Mr. Everard came out.

“She sleeps,” he said; “there is a shadow of hope.  Little Nan has done it.  Nan asked to lie down beside her, and she said, ’Poor Annie! poor Annie!’ and stroked her cheek; and in some way, I don’t know how, the two have gone to sleep together.  Annie did not even glance at her father; she was quite taken up with Nan.  You can come to the door and look at her, Hester.”

Hester did so.  A time had been when she could scarcely have borne that sight without a pang of jealousy; now she turned to Mr. Everard: 

“I ­I could even give her the heart of little Nan to keep her here,” she murmured.