A FRENCH LESSON
WHEN Sara entered the school-room the next morning everybody looked
at her with wide, interested eyes. By that time every pupil—from
Lavinia Herbert, who was nearly thirteen and felt quite grown up,
to Lottie Legh, who was only just four and the baby of the school—had
heard a great deal about her. They knew very certainly that
she was Miss Minchin's show pupil and was considered a credit
to the establishment. One or two of them had even caught a glimpse
of her French maid, Mariette, who had arrived the evening before.
Lavinia had managed to pass Sara's room when the door was open,
and had seen Mariette opening a box which had arrived late from
"It was full of petticoats with lace frills on them—frills and frills,"
she whispered to her friend Jessie as she bent over her geography.
"I saw her shaking them out. I heard Miss Minchin say to Miss
Amelia that her clothes were so grand that they were ridiculous
for a child. My mamma says that children should be dressed simply.
She has got one of those petticoats on now. I saw it when she
"She has silk stockings on!" whispered Jessie, bending over her
geography also. "And what little feet! I never saw such little feet."
"Oh," sniffed Lavinia, spitefully, "that is the way her slippers
are made. My mamma says that even big feet can be made to look small
if you have a clever shoemaker. I don't think she is pretty at all.
Her eyes are such a queer color."
"She isn't pretty as other pretty people are," said Jessie,
stealing a glance across the room; "but she makes you want to look
at her again. She has tremendously long eyelashes, but her eyes
are almost green."
Sara was sitting quietly in her seat, waiting to be told what to do.
She had been placed near Miss Minchin's desk. She was not abashed
at all by the many pairs of eyes watching her. She was interested
and looked back quietly at the children who looked at her.
She wondered what they were thinking of, and if they liked Miss Minchin,
and if they cared for their lessons, and if any of them had a papa
at all like her own. She had had a long talk with Emily about her
papa that morning.
"He is on the sea now, Emily," she had said. "We must be very great
friends to each other and tell each other things. Emily, look at me.
You have the nicest eyes I ever saw—but I wish you could speak."
She was a child full of imaginings and whimsical thoughts, and one
of her fancies was that there would be a great deal of comfort in even
pretending that Emily was alive and really heard and understood.
After Mariette had dressed her in her dark-blue school-room frock
and tied her hair with a dark-blue ribbon, she went to Emily,
who sat in a chair of her own, and gave her a book.
"You can read that while I am downstairs," she said; and, seeing Mariette
looking at her curiously, she spoke to her with a serious little face.
"What I believe about dolls," she said, "is that they can do things
they will not let us know about. Perhaps, really, Emily can read
and talk and walk, but she will only do it when people are out
of the room. That is her secret. You see, if people knew that
dolls could do things, they would make them work. So, perhaps,
they have promised each other to keep it a secret. If you stay
in the room, Emily will just sit there and stare; but if you go out,
she will begin to read, perhaps, or go and look out of the window.
Then if she heard either of us coming, she would just run back
and jump into her chair and pretend she had been there all the time."
"Comme elle est drôle!" Mariette said to herself, and when she went
downstairs she told the head housemaid about it. But she had already
begun to like this odd little girl who had such an intelligent small
face and such perfect manners. She had taken care of children
before who were not so polite. Sara was a very fine little person,
and had a gentle, appreciative way of saying, "If you please, Mariette,"
"Thank you, Mariette," which was very charming. Mariette told
the head housemaid that she thanked her as if she was thanking a lady.
"Elle a l'air d'une princesse, cette petite," she said.
Indeed, she was very much pleased with her new little mistress
and liked her place greatly.
After Sara had sat in her seat in the school-room for a few minutes,
being looked at by the pupils, Miss Minchin rapped in a dignified
manner upon her desk.
"Young ladies," she said, "I wish to introduce you to your
new companion." All the little girls rose in their places, and Sara
rose also. "I shall expect you all to be very agreeable to Miss Crewe;
she has just come to us from a great distance—in fact, from India.
As soon as lessons are over you must make each other's acquaintance."
The pupils bowed ceremoniously, and Sara made a little courtesy,
and then they sat down and looked at each other again.
"Sara," said Miss Minchin in her school-room manner, "come here to me."
She had taken a book from the desk and was turning over its leaves.
Sara went to her politely.
"As your papa has engaged a French maid for you," she began, "I conclude
that he wishes you to make a special study of the French language."
Sara felt a little awkward.
"I think he engaged her," she said, "because he—he thought I would
like her, Miss Minchin."
"I am afraid," said Miss Minchin, with a slightly sour smile,
"that you have been a very spoiled little girl and always imagine
that things are done because you like them. My impression is
that your papa wished you to learn French."
If Sara had been older or less punctilious about being quite polite
to people, she could have explained herself in a very few words.
But, as it was, she felt a flush rising on her cheeks. Miss Minchin
was a very severe and imposing person, and she seemed so absolutely
sure that Sara knew nothing whatever of French that she felt as if it
would be almost rude to correct her. The truth was that Sara could
not remember the time when she had not seemed to know French.
Her father had often spoken it to her when she had been a baby.
Her mother had been a French woman, and Captain Crewe had loved
her language, so it happened that Sara had always heard and been
familiar with it.
"I—I have never really learned French, but—but—" she began,
trying shyly to make herself clear.
One of Miss Minchin's chief secret annoyances was that she did not
speak French herself, and was desirous of concealing the irritating fact.
She, therefore, had no intention of discussing the matter and laying
herself open to innocent questioning by a new little pupil.
"That is enough," she said with polite tartness. "If you
have not learned, you must begin at once. The French master,
Monsieur Dufarge, will be here in a few minutes. Take this
book and look at it until he arrives."
Sara's cheeks felt warm. She went back to her seat and opened the book.
She looked at the first page with a grave face. She knew it would
be rude to smile, and she was very determined not to be rude.
But it was very odd to find herself expected to study a page
which told her that "le père" meant "the father," and "la mère"
meant "the mother."
Miss Minchin glanced toward her scrutinizingly.
"You look rather cross, Sara," she said. "I am sorry you do not
like the idea of learning French."
"I am very fond of it," answered Sara, thinking she would try
"You must not say 'but' when you are told to do things,"
said Miss Minchin. "Look at your book again."
And Sara did so, and did not smile, even when she found that "le fils"
meant "the son," and "le frère" meant "the brother."
"When Monsieur Dufarge comes," she thought, "I can make him understand."
Monsieur Dufarge arrived very shortly afterward. He was a very nice,
intelligent, middle-aged Frenchman, and he looked interested when
his eyes fell upon Sara trying politely to seem absorbed in her
little book of phrases.
"Is this a new pupil for me, madame?" he said to Miss Minchin.
"I hope that is my good fortune."
"Her papa—Captain Crewe—is very anxious that she should begin
the language. But I am afraid she has a childish prejudice against it.
She does not seem to wish to learn," said Miss Minchin.
"I am sorry of that, mademoiselle," he said kindly to Sara.
"Perhaps, when we begin to study together, I may show you that it
is a charming tongue."
Little Sara rose in her seat. She was beginning to feel
rather desperate, as if she were almost in disgrace. She looked
up into Monsieur Dufarge's face with her big, green-gray eyes,
and they were quite innocently appealing. She knew that he would
understand as soon as she spoke. She began to explain quite
simply in pretty and fluent French. Madame had not understood.
She had not learned French exactly—not out of books—but her
papa and other people had always spoken it to her, and she had
read it and written it as she had read and written English.
Her papa loved it, and she loved it because he did. Her dear mamma,
who had died when she was born, had been French. She would be glad
to learn anything monsieur would teach her, but what she had tried
to explain to madame was that she already knew the words in this book—and
she held out the little book of phrases.
When she began to speak Miss Minchin started quite violently
and sat staring at her over her eye-glasses, almost indignantly,
until she had finished. Monsieur Dufarge began to smile, and his
smile was one of great pleasure. To hear this pretty childish voice
speaking his own language so simply and charmingly made him feel
almost as if he were in his native land—which in dark, foggy days
in London sometimes seemed worlds away. When she had finished,
he took the phrase book from her, with a look almost affectionate.
But he spoke to Miss Minchin.
"Ah, madame," he said, "there is not much I can teach her. She has
not learned French; she is French. Her accent is exquisite."
"You ought to have told me," exclaimed Miss Minchin, much mortified,
turning to Sara.
"I—I tried," said Sara. "I—I suppose I did not begin right."
Miss Minchin knew she had tried, and that it had not been her
fault that she was not allowed to explain. And when she saw
that the pupils had been listening and that Lavinia and Jessie
were giggling behind their French grammars, she felt infuriated.
"Silence, young ladies!" she said severely, rapping upon the desk.
"Silence at once!"
And she began from that minute to feel rather a grudge against
her show pupil.
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