One moment more, and the neat school hats of the new-comers had swelled the group of similar school hats already collected on the platform; ecstatic greetings were exchanged, urgent questions asked and hasty answers given, and items of choice information poured forth with the utmost volubility of which the English tongue is capable. Urged by brief directions from a mistress in charge, the chattering crew surged towards a siding, and made for a particular corridor carriage marked “Reserved”. Here handbags, umbrellas, wraps, and lunch-baskets were hastily stowed away in the racks, and, Miss Moseley having assured herself that not a single lamb of her flock was left behind, the grinning porter slammed the doors, the green flag waved, and the local train, long overdue, started with a jerk for the Craigwen Valley.
The little wayside station, erstwhile the quietest and sleepiest on the line, was soon overflowing with girls and their belongings. Miss Moseley flitted up and down the platform, marshalling her charges like a faithful collie, the one porter did his slow best, and after a few agitated returns to the compartments for forgotten articles, everything was successfully collected, and the train went steaming away down the valley in the direction of Craigwen. It seemed to take the last link of civilization with it, and to leave only the pure, unsullied country behind. The girls crossed the line and walked through the white station gate with pleased anticipation writ large on their faces. It was the cult at The Woodlands to idolize nature and the picturesque, and they had reached a part of their journey which was a particular source of pride to the school.
Ulyth Stanton was a decided personality in the Lower Fifth. If not exactly pretty, she was a dainty little damsel, and knew how to make the best of herself. Her fair hair was glossy and waved in the most becoming fashion, her clothes were well cut, her gloves and shoes immaculate. She had an artistic temperament, and loved to be surrounded by pretty things. She was rather a favourite at The Woodlands, for she had few sharp angles and possessed a fair share of tact. If the girls laughed sometimes at what they called her “high-falutin’ notions” they nevertheless respected her opinions and admired her more than they always chose to admit.
On that first morning, when Sara sat at Miss Minchin’s side, aware that the whole schoolroom was devoting itself to observing her, she had noticed very soon one little girl, about her own age, who looked at her very hard with a pair of light, rather dull, blue eyes. She was a fat child who did not look as if she were in the least clever, but she had a good-naturedly pouting mouth. Her flaxen hair was braided in a tight pigtail, tied with a ribbon, and she had pulled this pigtail around her neck, and was biting the end of the ribbon, resting her elbows on the desk, as she stared wonderingly at the new pupil.
If Sara had been a different kind of child, the life she led at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for the next few years would not have been at all good for her. She was treated more as if she were a distinguished guest at the establishment than as if she were a mere little girl.