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"I don't want you to give me anything," said Sara. "I want your books--I want them!" And her eyes grew big, and her chest heaved.
"Take them, then," said Ermengarde. "I wish I wanted them--but I don't. I'm not clever, and my father is, and he thinks I ought to be."
Sara was opening one book after the other. "What are you going to tell your father?" she asked, a slight doubt dawning in her mind.
"Oh, he needn't know," answered Ermengarde. "He'll think I've read them."
Sara put down her book and shook her head slowly. "That's almost like telling lies," she said. "And lies--well, you see, they are not only wicked--they're VULGAR. Sometimes"-- reflectively--"I've thought perhaps I might do something wicked-- I might suddenly fly into a rage and kill Miss Minchin, you know, when she was ill-treating me--but I COULDN'T be vulgar. Why can't you tell your father _I_ read them?"
"He wants me to read them," said Ermengarde, a little discouraged by this unexpected turn of affairs.
"He wants you to know what is in them," said Sara. "And if I can tell it to you in an easy way and make you remember it, I should think he would like that."
"He'll like it if I learn anything in ANY way," said rueful Ermengarde. "You would if you were my father."
"It's not your fault that--" began Sara. She pulled herself up and stopped rather suddenly. She had been going to say, "It's not your fault that you are stupid."
"That what?" Ermengarde asked.
"That you can't learn things quickly," amended Sara. "If you can't, you can't. If I can--why, I can; that's all."
She always felt very tender of Ermengarde, and tried not to let her feel too strongly the difference between being able to learn anything at once, and not being able to learn anything at all. As she looked at her plump face, one of her wise, old-fashioned thoughts came to her.
"Perhaps," she said, "to be able to learn things quickly isn't everything. To be kind is worth a great deal to other people. If Miss Minchin knew everything on earth and was like what she is now, she'd still be a detestable thing, and everybody would hate her. Lots of clever people have done harm and have been wicked. Look at Robespierre--"
She stopped and examined Ermengarde's countenance, which was beginning to look bewildered. "Don't you remember?" she demanded. "I told you about him not long ago. I believe you've forgotten."
"Well, I don't remember ALL of it," admitted Ermengarde.
"Well, you wait a minute," said Sara, "and I'll take off my wet things and wrap myself in the coverlet and tell you over again."
She took off her hat and coat and hung them on a nail against the wall, and she changed her wet shoes for an old pair of slippers. Then she jumped on the bed, and drawing the coverlet about her shoulders, sat with her arms round her knees. "Now, listen," she said.
She plunged into the gory records of the French Revolution, and told such stories of it that Ermengarde's eyes grew round with alarm and she held her breath. But though she was rather terrified, there was a delightful thrill in listening, and she was not likely to forget Robespierre again, or to have any doubts about the Princesse de Lamballe.
"You know they put her head on a pike and danced round it," Sara explained. "And she had beautiful floating blonde hair; and when I think of her, I never see her head on her body, but always on a pike, with those furious people dancing and howling."
It was agreed that Mr. St. John was to be told the plan they had made, and for the present the books were to be left in the attic.
"Now let's tell each other things," said Sara. "How are you getting on with your French lessons?"
"Ever so much better since the last time I came up here and you explained the conjugations. Miss Minchin could not understand why I did my exercises so well that first morning."
Sara laughed a little and hugged her knees.
"She doesn't understand why Lottie is doing her sums so well," she said; "but it is because she creeps up here, too, and I help her." She glanced round the room. "The attic would be rather nice--if it wasn't so dreadful," she said, laughing again. "It's a good place to pretend in."
The truth was that Ermengarde did not know anything of the sometimes almost unbearable side of life in the attic and she had not a sufficiently vivid imagination to depict it for herself. On the rare occasions that she could reach Sara's room she only saw the side of it which was made exciting by things which were "pretended" and stories which were told. Her visits partook of the character of adventures; and though sometimes Sara looked rather pale, and it was not to be denied that she had grown very thin, her proud little spirit would not admit of complaints. She had never confessed that at times she was almost ravenous with hunger, as she was tonight. She was growing rapidly, and her constant walking and running about would have given her a keen appetite even if she had had abundant and regular meals of a much more nourishing nature than the unappetizing, inferior food snatched at such odd times as suited the kitchen convenience. She was growing used to a certain gnawing feeling in her young stomach.
"I suppose soldiers feel like this when they are on a long and weary march," she often said to herself. She liked the sound of the phrase, "long and weary march." It made her feel rather like a soldier. She had also a quaint sense of being a hostess in the attic.
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A Little Princess -by- Frances Hodgson Burnett