It was December 30, and London was frigid. The smoke and fog of the city sat heavy and cold over Miss Minchin's seminary. The unforgiving weather made everyone cross, and Sara Crewe had been scolded since the moment she had gotten up that morning. The fires weren't warm enough, she hadn't blacked the shoes well enough, and she almost cut off her finger slicing carrots. Usually she didn't work in the kitchens all day anymore, but as it was the Christmas holidays, she couldn't retreat to the schoolroom to teach the younger children as she usually would. This didn't allow her a break, however; there was work to be done, so she must do it. Just now, she was filling a bucket in order to scrub the area steps: a job she was not looking forward to doing in the bitter wind.
I've been slaving at this school for seven years, now, Sara thought to herself as she picked up the brush, and I still haven't advanced beyond scrubbing on my hands and knees.
When she opened the door, the cold hit her like a blow. With her head down against a cruel wind, she set down the bucket and began scrubbing the steps.
The cold water bit into her hands. There was snow on the steps. It wasn't snowing now, though; it was too cold. Sarah felt her hands would ice over at any moment. She began to shiver as she scrubbed, her wet hands turned from a raw red to a forbidding purple. The cold was almost unbearable, but she couldn't stop scrubbing, not for a moment; she had to get the job done. Her hands went achingly numb. The absolute hopelessness of it all caved in on her. And Sara Crewe, the princess who never cried, felt big hot tears course down her cheeks and turn cold before they reached her lips.
"Are you alright?" a voice asked from above, and Sara's head snapped up. A young man was leaning over the are railing, looking down at her. He was good-looking, with tousled brown hair and warm hazel eyes, just now looking rather concerned. Sara thought she recognized him from the neighborhood; he was visiting a man across the street. He was warmly dressed in a long coat, and Sarah couldn't help glancing enviously at his gloves for a moment. He didn't look rich, exactly, but he wasn't poor.
Like I am, Sara thought wretchedly. Usually, she would never allow such a thought to enter her mind, but she was too miserable to care today.
Her pride still held, though. "I'm fine, thank you," she answered, ducking her head again and wiping her cheeks with her shoulders as she turned back to her task.
"Then why are you crying?" he asked gently.
She looked up at him again. The look on his face was one of genuine concern; she hadn't seen such an expression in the eyes of a stranger for some time, and her proud, frozen heard melted a bit.
"My hands are just so cold," she told him helplessly. "I can't feel my fingers, and I just felt that I couldn't bear it any longer."
"Come up here," he said. Sara hesitated, but the young man teased, "I don't bite."
Sara managed a small smile and climbed up the steps to him. He pulled off his gloves and stuck them in his pockets. Taking her hands in his, he began gently chafing them. Sara glanced around. What if someone should see them? Somehow, it didn't seem quite proper, being so close to a total stranger.
The young man must have seen her expression, because he gave a little laugh. "Here we're shaking hands, and we haven't been introduced, he said. "My name's Henry Eshton."
"Sara Crewe," Sara replied. Her hands felt warmer already.
"Do you work here?" he asked, nodding toward the seminary.
"Yes," Sara replied resignedly.
"They surely don't pay you good wages," he said, glancing at her strange-looking, worn-out and ill-fitting clothes. Sara dropped her eyes. "Oh, forgive me!" he exclaimed, still holding her hands. "That was terribly put. It's just—you seem too genteel to be scrubbing steps."
"It's alright," Sara said. "Actually, they don't pay me at all. I'm working off a debt."
Henry looked puzzled, but forbore to pry. "Is that better?"
"Yes, my fingers are much warmer now," Sara answered gratefully.
"Here," he said, pulling out his gloves. "If you go back to scrubbing those steps your fingers will freeze again. Put these on."
"Oh, no. It's very generous of you, but I couldn't."
"Actually, it's not generous at all; I have more pairs at home," Henry replied, pressing the gloves into her hands. "I'm just afraid they'll be a bit large for you hands." He let go of the gloves and stepped away so that Sara was forced to hold them. She felt she should be angry at him, her pride should be wounded, but somehow it wasn't. Before she could say another word, Henry tipped his hat to her. "Good day, Miss Crewe," he said cordially and walked away.
Sara stared after him, a great mix of emotions churning in her chest. She shook her head in bewilderment as he was lost in London's yellow smog. Then she looked down at the handsome gloves in her hand. With a little laugh, she put them on and took up her scrub brush again.