Chapter 9 of A Little Princess
by Frances Hodgeson Burnett.
The third person in the trio was Lottie. She was a small thing
and did not know what adversity meant, and was much bewildered by
the alteration she saw in her young adopted mother. She had
heard it rumored that strange things had happened to Sara, but
she could not understand why she looked different--why she wore
an old black frock and came into the schoolroom only to teach
instead of to sit in her place of honor and learn lessons
herself. There had been much whispering among the little ones
when it had been discovered that Sara no longer lived in the
rooms in which Emily had so long sat in state. Lottie's chief
difficulty was that Sara said so little when one asked her
questions. At seven mysteries must be made very clear if one is
to understand them.
"Are you very poor now, Sara?" she had asked confidentially the
first morning her friend took charge of the small French class.
"Are you as poor as a beggar?" She thrust a fat hand into the
slim one and opened round, tearful eyes. "I don't want you to be
as poor as a beggar."
She looked as if she was going to cry. And Sara hurriedly
"Beggars have nowhere to live," she said courageously. "I have a
place to live in."
"Where do you live?" persisted Lottle. "The new girl sleeps in
your room, and it isn't pretty any more."
"I live in another room," said Sara.
"Is it a nice one?" inquired Lottie. "I want to go and see it."
"You must not talk," said Sara. "Miss Minchin is looking at us.
She will be angry with me for letting you whisper."
She had found out already that she was to be held accountable
for everything which was objected to. If the children were not
attentive, if they talked, if they were restless, it was she who
would be reproved.
But Lottie was a determined little person. If Sara would not
tell her where she lived, she would find out in some other way.
She talked to her small companions and hung about the elder
girls and listened when they were gossiping; and acting upon
certain information they had unconsciously let drop, she started
late one afternoon on a voyage of discovery, climbing stairs she
had never known the existence of, until she reached the attic
floor. There she found two doors near each other, and opening
one, she saw her beloved Sara standing upon an old table and
looking out of a window.
"Sara!" she cried, aghast. "Mamma Sara!" She was aghast
because the attic was so bare and ugly and seemed so far away
from all the world. Her short legs had seemed to have been
mounting hundreds of stairs.
Sara turned round at the sound of her voice. It was her turn to
be aghast. What would happen now? If Lottie began to cry and
any one chanced to hear, they were both lost. She jumped down
from her table and ran to the child.
"Don't cry and make a noise," she implored. "I shall be scolded
if you do, and I have been scolded all day. It's--it's not such
a bad room, Lottie."
"Isn't it?" gasped Lottie, and as she looked round it she bit
her lip. She was a spoiled child yet, but she was fond enough of
her adopted parent to make an effort to control herself for her
sake. Then, somehow, it was quite possible that any place in
which Sara lived might turn out to be nice. "Why isn't it,
Sara?" she almost whispered.
Sara hugged her close and tried to laugh. There was a sort of
comfort in the warmth of the plump, childish body. She had had a
hard day and had been staring out of the windows with hot eyes.
"You can see all sorts of things you can't see downstairs," she
"What sort of things?" demanded Lottie, with that curiosity
Sara could always awaken even in bigger girls.
"Chimneys--quite close to us--with smoke curling up in wreaths
and clouds and going up into the sky--and sparrows hopping about
and talking to each other just as if they were people--and other
attic windows where heads may pop out any minute and you can
wonder who they belong to. And it all feels as high up--as if
it was another world."
"Oh, let me see it!" cried Lottie. "Lift me up!"
Sara lifted her up, and they stood on the old table together and
leaned on the edge of the flat window in the roof, and looked
Anyone who has not done this does not know what a different
world they saw. The slates spread out on either side of them and
slanted down into the rain gutter-pipes. The sparrows, being at
home there, twittered and hopped about quite without fear. Two
of them perched on the chimney top nearest and quarrelled with
each other fiercely until one pecked the other and drove him
away. The garret window next to theirs was shut because the
house next door was empty.
"I wish someone lived there," Sara said. "It is so close that if
there was a little girl in the attic, we could talk to each other
through the windows and climb over to see each other, if we were
not afraid of falling."
The sky seemed so much nearer than when one saw it from the
street, that Lottie was enchanted. From the attic window, among
the chimney pots, the things which were happening in the world
below seemed almost unreal. One scarcely believed in the
existence of Miss Minchin and Miss Amelia and the schoolroom, and
the roll of wheels in the square seemed a sound belonging to
"Oh, Sara!" cried Lottie, cuddling in her guarding arm. "I like
this attic--I like it! It is nicer than downstairs!"
"Look at that sparrow," whispered Sara. "I wish I had some
crumbs to throw to him."
"I have some!" came in a little shriek from Lottie. "I have
part of a bun in my pocket; I bought it with my penny yesterday,
and I saved a bit."
When they threw out a few crumbs the sparrow jumped and flew
away to an adjacent chimney top. He was evidently not accustomed
to intimates in attics, and unexpected crumbs startled him. But
when Lottie remained quite still and Sara chirped very softly--
almost as if she were a sparrow herself--he saw that the thing
which had alarmed him represented hospitality, after all. He
put his head on one side, and from his perch on the chimney
looked down at the crumbs with twinkling eyes. Lottie could
scarcely keep still.
"Will he come? Will he come?" she whispered.
"His eyes look as if he would," Sara whispered back. "He is
thinking and thinking whether he dare. Yes, he will! Yes, he is
He flew down and hopped toward the crumbs, but stopped a few
inches away from them, putting his head on one side again, as if
reflecting on the chances that Sara and Lottie might turn out to
be big cats and jump on him. At last his heart told him they
were really nicer than they looked, and he hopped nearer and
nearer, darted at the biggest crumb with a lightning peck, seized
it, and carried it away to the other side of his chimney.
"Now he KNOWS", said Sara. "And he will come back for the
He did come back, and even brought a friend, and the friend went
away and brought a relative, and among them they made a hearty
meal over which they twittered and chattered and exclaimed,
stopping every now and then to put their heads on one side and
examine Lottie and Sara. Lottie was so delighted that she quite
forgot her first shocked impression of the attic. In fact, when
she was lifted down from the table and returned to earthly
things, as it were, Sara was able to point out to her many
beauties in the room which she herself would not have suspected
the existence of.
"It is so little and so high above everything," she said, "that
it is almost like a nest in a tree. The slanting ceiling is so
funny. See, you can scarcely stand up at this end of the room;
and when the morning begins to come I can lie in bed and look
right up into the sky through that flat window in the roof. It
is like a square patch of light. If the sun is going to shine,
little pink clouds float about, and I feel as if I could touch
them. And if it rains, the drops patter and patter as if they
were saying something nice. Then if there are stars, you can lie
and try to count how many go into the patch. It takes such a
lot. And just look at that tiny, rusty grate in the corner. If
it was polished and there was a fire in it, just think how nice
it would be. You see, it's really a beautiful little room."
She was walking round the small place, holding Lottie's hand and
making gestures which described all the beauties she was making
herself see. She quite made Lottie see them, too. Lottie could
always believe in the things Sara made pictures of.
"You see," she said, "there could be a thick, soft blue Indian
rug on the floor; and in that corner there could be a soft little
sofa, with cushions to curl up on; and just over it could be a
shelf full of books so that one could reach them easily; and
there could be a fur rug before the fire, and hangings on the
wall to cover up the whitewash, and pictures. They would have to
be little ones, but they could be beautiful; and there could be a
lamp with a deep rose-colored shade; and a table in the middle,
with things to have tea with; and a little fat copper kettle
singing on the hob; and the bed could be quite different. It
could be made soft and covered with a lovely silk coverlet. It
could be beautiful. And perhaps we could coax the sparrows until
we made such friends with them that they would come and peck at
the window and ask to be let in."
"Oh, Sara!" cried Lottie. "I should like to live here!"
When Sara had persuaded her to go downstairs again, and, after
setting her on her way, had come back to her attic, she stood in
the middle of it and looked about her. The enchantment of her
imaginings for Lottie had died away. The bed was hard and
covered with its dingy quilt. The whitewashed wall showed its
broken patches, the floor was cold and bare, the grate was broken
and rusty, and the battered footstool, tilted sideways on its
injured leg, the only seat in the room. She sat down on it for a
few minutes and let her head drop in her hands. The mere fact
that Lottie had come and gone away again made things seem a
little worse--just as perhaps prisoners feel a little more
desolate after visitors come and go, leaving them behind.
"It's a lonely place," she said. "Sometimes it's the loneliest
place in the world."
She was sitting in this way when her attention was attracted by
a slight sound near her. She lifted her head to see where it
came from, and if she had been a nervous child she would have
left her seat on the battered footstool in a great hurry. A
large rat was sitting up on his hind quarters and sniffing the
air in an interested manner. Some of Lottie's crumbs had dropped
upon the floor and their scent had drawn him out of his hole.
He looked so queer and so like a gray-whiskered dwarf or gnome
that Sara was rather fascinated. He looked at her with his
bright eyes, as if he were asking a question. He was evidently
so doubtful that one of the child's queer thoughts came into her
"I dare say it is rather hard to be a rat," she mused. "Nobody
likes you. People jump and run away and scream out, `Oh, a
horrid rat!' I shouldn't like people to scream and jump and
say, `Oh, a horrid Sara!' the moment they saw me. And set traps
for me, and pretend they were dinner. It's so different to be a
sparrow. But nobody asked this rat if he wanted to be a rat when
he was made. Nobody said, `Wouldn't you rather be a sparrow?'"
She had sat so quietly that the rat had begun to take courage.
He was very much afraid of her, but perhaps he had a heart like
the sparrow and it told him that she was not a thing which
pounced. He was very hungry. He had a wife and a large family
in the wall, and they had had frightfully bad luck for several
days. He had left the children crying bitterly, and felt he
would risk a good deal for a few crumbs, so he cautiously dropped
upon his feet.
"Come on," said Sara; "I'm not a trap. You can have them, poor
thing! Prisoners in the Bastille used to make friends with rats.
Suppose I make friends with you."
How it is that animals understand things I do not know, but it
is certain that they do understand. Perhaps there is a language
which is not made of words and everything in the world
understands it. Perhaps there is a soul hidden in everything and
it can always speak, without even making a sound, to another
soul. But whatsoever was the reason, the rat knew from that
moment that he was safe--even though he was a rat. He knew that
this young human being sitting on the red footstool would not
jump up and terrify him with wild, sharp noises or throw heavy
objects at him which, if they did not fall and crush him, would
send him limping in his scurry back to his hole. He was really a
very nice rat, and did not mean the least harm. When he had
stood on his hind legs and sniffed the air, with his bright eyes
fixed on Sara, he had hoped that she would understand this, and
would not begin by hating him as an enemy. When the mysterious
thing which speaks without saying any words told him that she
would not, he went softly toward the crumbs and began to eat
them. As he did it he glanced every now and then at Sara, just
as the sparrows had done, and his expression was so very
apologetic that it touched her heart.
She sat and watched him without making any movement. One crumb
was very much larger than the others--in fact, it could scarcely
be called a crumb. It was evident that he wanted that piece very
much, but it lay quite near the footstool and he was still rather
"I believe he wants it to carry to his family in the wall," Sara
thought. "If I do not stir at all, perhaps he will come and get
She scarcely allowed herself to breathe, she was so deeply
interested. The rat shuffled a little nearer and ate a few more
crumbs, then he stopped and sniffed delicately, giving a side
glance at the occupant of the footstool; then he darted at the
piece of bun with something very like the sudden boldness of the
sparrow, and the instant he had possession of it fled back to the
wall, slipped down a crack in the skirting board, and was gone.
"I knew he wanted it for his children," said Sara. "I do
believe I could make friends with him."
A week or so afterward, on one of the rare nights when
Ermengarde found it safe to steal up to the attic, when she
tapped on the door with the tips of her fingers Sara did not come
to her for two or three minutes. There was, indeed, such a
silence in the room at first that Ermengarde wondered if she
could have fallen asleep. Then, to her surprise, she heard her
utter a little, low laugh and speak coaxingly to someone.
"There!" Ermengarde heard her say. "Take it and go home,
Melchisedec! Go home to your wife!"
Almost immediately Sara opened the door, and when she did so she
found Ermengarde standing with alarmed eyes upon the threshold.
"Who--who ARE you talking to, Sara?" she gasped out.
Sara drew her in cautiously, but she looked as if something
pleased and amused her.
"You must promise not to be frightened--not to scream the least
bit, or I can't tell you," she answered.
Ermengarde felt almost inclined to scream on the spot, but
managed to control herself. She looked all round the attic and
saw no one. And yet Sara had certainly been speaking TO someone.
She thought of ghosts.
"Is it--something that will frighten me?" she asked timorously.
"Some people are afraid of them," said Sara. "I was at first--
but I am not now."
"Was it--a ghost?" quaked Ermengarde.
"No," said Sara, laughing. "It was my rat."
Ermengarde made one bound, and landed in the middle of the
little dingy bed. She tucked her feet under her nightgown and
the red shawl. She did not scream, but she gasped with fright.
"Oh! Oh!" she cried under her breath. "A rat! A rat!"
"I was afraid you would be frightened," said Sara. "But you
needn't be. I am making him tame. He actually knows me and
comes out when I call him. Are you too frightened to want to see
The truth was that, as the days had gone on and, with the aid of
scraps brought up from the kitchen, her curious friendship had
developed, she had gradually forgotten that the timid creature
she was becoming familiar with was a mere rat.
At first Ermengarde was too much alarmed to do anything but
huddle in a heap upon the bed and tuck up her feet, but the sight
of Sara's composed little countenance and the story of
Melchisedec's first appearance began at last to rouse her
curiosity, and she leaned forward over the edge of the bed and
watched Sara go and kneel down by the hole in the skirting board.
"He--he won't run out quickly and jump on the bed, will he?" she
"No," answered Sara. "He's as polite as we are. He is just like
a person. Now watch!"
She began to make a low, whistling sound--so low and coaxing that
it could only have been heard in entire stillness. She did it
several times, looking entirely absorbed in it. Ermengarde
thought she looked as if she were working a spell. And at last,
evidently in response to it, a gray-whiskered, bright-eyed head
peeped out of the hole. Sara had some crumbs in her hand. She
dropped them, and Melchisedec came quietly forth and ate them. A
piece of larger size than the rest he took and carried in the
most businesslike manner back to his home.
"You see," said Sara, "that is for his wife and children. He is
very nice. He only eats the little bits. After he goes back I
can always hear his family squeaking for joy. There are three
kinds of squeaks. One kind is the children's, and one is Mrs.
Melchisedec's, and one is Melchisedec's own."
Ermengarde began to laugh.
"Oh, Sara!" she said. "You ARE queer--but you are nice."
"I know I am queer," admitted Sara, cheerfully; "and I TRY to be
nice." She rubbed her forehead with her little brown paw, and a
puzzled, tender look came into her face. "Papa always laughed at
me," she said; "but I liked it. He thought I was queer, but he
liked me to make up things. I--I can't help making up things.
If I didn't, I don't believe I could live." She paused and
glanced around the attic. "I'm sure I couldn't live here," she
added in a low voice.
Ermengarde was interested, as she always was. "When you talk
about things," she said, "they seem as if they grew real. You
talk about Melchisedec as if he was a person."
"He IS a person," said Sara. "He gets hungry and frightened,
just as we do; and he is married and has children. How do we
know he doesn't think things, just as we do? His eyes look as if
he was a person. That was why I gave him a name."
She sat down on the floor in her favorite attitude, holding her
"Besides," she said, "he is a Bastille rat sent to be my friend.
I can always get a bit of bread the cook has thrown away, and it
is quite enough to support him."
"Is it the Bastille yet?" asked Ermengarde, eagerly. "Do you
always pretend it is the Bastille?"
"Nearly always," answered Sara. "Sometimes I try to pretend it
is another kind of place; but the Bastille is generally easiest--
particularly when it is cold."
Just at that moment Ermengarde almost jumped off the bed, she
was so startled by a sound she heard. It was like two distinct
knocks on the wall.
"What is that?" she exclaimed.
Sara got up from the floor and answered quite dramatically:
"It is the prisoner in the next cell."
"Becky!" cried Ermengarde, enraptured.
"Yes," said Sara. "Listen; the two knocks meant, `Prisoner, are
She knocked three times on the wall herself, as if in answer.
"That means, `Yes, I am here, and all is well.'"
Four knocks came from Becky's side of the wall.
"That means," explained Sara, "`Then, fellow-sufferer, we will
sleep in peace. Good night.'"
Ermengarde quite beamed with delight.
"Oh, Sara!" she whispered joyfully. "It is like a story!"
"It IS a story," said Sara. "EVERYTHING'S a story. You are a
story--I am a story. Miss Minchin is a story."
And she sat down again and talked until Ermengarde forgot that
she was a sort of escaped prisoner herself, and had to be
reminded by Sara that she could not remain in the Bastille all
night, but must steal noiselessly downstairs again and creep back
into her deserted bed.
Next: The Indian Gentleman