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Paulina sat up, rubbing her eyes.
"Dear me," she exclaimed, "Oddingstowe already!"
Clodagh looked out of the window.
"No," she said hesitatingly. "I don't think it can be. There's no village or houses; only a turnpike. Oh, yes," she went on, "I see what it is. We're stopping to take up another passenger."
"What sort of one?" her cousin demanded. "I hope to goodness it's not a first-class one – an inside one – we are stuffed up enough already. There's scarcely air to breathe."
"N-no," Clodagh replied, continuing to look out. "I don't think it can be. It's only a little old woman, quite poor, and she doesn't seem to have any luggage. She's only carrying a hand-bag – just a sort of reticule."
"All right," Paulina responded, lazily settling herself again for another nap. "All the same, I wish they wouldn't pull up in this unnecessary way. I was so comfortably asleep. It's the only thing to do in this tropical heat."
Clodagh too was sitting down again, congratulating herself, more on Paulina's account than her own, that their privacy was not to be disturbed – when, alas, her unspoken relief proved premature. To her astonishment, the guard approached the door, which he opened, and with a "your pardon, ladies," to the two girls, held it civilly by the handle, for the new-comer to enter.
Clodagh instinctively drew back a little for her to pass. There were four places – two and two – facing each other. Hitherto the younger girl had been sitting beside her cousin – the opposite seat covered with their possessions. But now she at once began to clear a space on it for herself, for she saw at a glance that the stranger was old, and looked fragile and delicate, and in spite of the extreme simplicity of her attire – she wore only a clean but faded cotton of an old-fashioned flowery pattern, half covered by a sort of market-woman's cloak, and surmounted by a huge black straw bonnet – in spite of this there was a certain dignity about her as in reply to Clodagh's silent attention she murmured, "I thank you, young lady. But do not disturb yourself. I can occupy the back seat."
"I should think so indeed," exclaimed Paulina angrily. "Indeed, my good woman, I am inclined to believe that your coming in here at all is some mistake. This is for first-class passengers, and moreover our places have been engaged for some days ahead. – What are you thinking of, you silly child?" she went on sharply, turning to her cousin. "Why should you give up your place to this person and her bundles? I won't have it. Sit down beside me at once," for Clodagh with a crimson face was still hesitating and moving about the bags and baggage nervously, though the new-comer had already settled herself quietly with her back to the horses.
"Paulina," said the younger girl in a low voice, "do not be so excited. She has no bundles, or anything, so it cannot really inconvenience us. And she is old, and looks so fragile. It is only right that I should offer her my seat."
Paulina was about to reply in the same irritated tone, when she was interrupted.
"I thank you, my kind young lady," said the stranger in a clear voice, which somehow enforced attention, "I thank you for your courtesy and consideration.But I have no desire to take your place, I assure you. In fact I prefer this side. I am an old traveller. Nor will my presence incommode you for long. I shall leave the coach before we reach Oddingstowe."
Clodagh murmured a gentle "Thank you." She was grateful to the old woman for not resenting her cousin's rudeness. And to Paulina she whispered, "She cannot be a mere peasant. Her voice and words show it"; and to do her justice, the elder girl looked a little ashamed of herself.
"Don't tease me," she said. "It always upsets me to be wakened suddenly. I'm going to sleep again," and so saying she leant back and closed her eyes.
And after a few minutes Clodagh followed her example, though she was no longer sleepy. But something – a vague feeling of slight shyness – made her do so, for she was conscious of her opposite neighbour's scrutiny. Now and then from the depths of the quaint black bonnet she caught the gleam of dark bright eyes, and the sensation caused her cheeks to grow pink again.
"Who and what can she be?" the girl said to herself. "She certainly looks like a peasant, but her voice – her expressions – her dignity belie it," and thus puzzling over the anomaly, Clodagh after all fell asleep.
Now I must mention what may seem strange and most improbable. You will remember the description given to the young traveller only an hour or two before the coach stopped at the turnpike, of the old lady in the neighbourhood, concerning whom such curious and even uncanny things were said?
Yes – well, this is the strange fact. Though Clodagh was at once impressed in an unusual way by the personality of their fellow-traveller, and perplexed to explain her inconsistencies, never once during the day's journey did it occur to her to put "two and two together"; to guess, as no doubt you, children, who are reading this little old story, will already have done, that here in person was the mysterious lady of the landlady's legend – the being who, if not actually of fairy race herself, still had much in common with the "good people," and doubtless dealings with them.
But so it happened with Clodagh, and afterwards – not a long-delayed afterwards either, as you will hear – she felt quite unable to explain her own forgetfulness, or "stupidity" as she called it.
In the meantime what occurred was this. She slept and Paulina slept on uninterruptedly till the coach drew up at Oddingstowe. And when it did so, and the clatter over the cobble-stones of the old inn's courtyard aroused them, lo and behold, they were alone! The strange new-comer had disappeared. The whole episode might have been a dream, only that rarely, if ever, do any two people dream the same and at the same time.
"She's gone," she exclaimed.
"Yes," said her cousin, feeling very much inclined to add, "You needn't have been so rude to her."
"I never felt or heard the coach stop to let her get out," added the elder girl.
"Nor did I," said Clodagh, "only – "
"Nothing. I was dreaming, I suppose. But I have a misty recollection of hearing some one say, almost in a whisper, 'Good-bye for the present, my dear. We shall meet again.'"
"I hope not," said Paulina, with a slight shudder. "Clodagh, you don't think possibly she's a witch?"
Clodagh's spirit of mischief inclined her to frighten her cousin a little, but she refrained.
"No, of course not," she replied. "She's a very polite and harmless old woman, though, no doubt, there did seem something rather odd – mysterious almost – about her. But if I may say it, Paulina, I think, in travelling especially, it is best to be so – polite I mean – to everybody one is thrown into contact with."
Paulina muttered something which sounded like "rubbish" or "nonsense," but aloud she only said snappishly, "You know nothing about travelling, child. One has to keep up one's dignity."
"There is a good way and a bad way of doing so," thought the younger girl, though she said nothing more. She was relieved, however, to see that her cousin was not really vexed with her, for she had spoken impulsively, forgetting that it was scarcely her place to reprove Paulina, all things considered.
"I think she is really gentler and kinder than she sometimes appears," Clodagh's reflections went on. "I fancy I shall be able to get on with her if I am patient, and if I try my best. The only thing I am depressed about is the luggage! I don't know how to get my own things into smaller compass, and when it comes to all her belongings too, I don't see my way at all. I am so afraid of losing any of her beautiful clothes, and no doubt she has valuable jewellery too, and she is very changeable in her plans. Lady Roseley warned me that sometimes I should have to pack and unpack at very short notice indeed!" and she could not help sighing a little. But Paulina did not observe it, for by this time, as I said, they were at Oddingstowe, the small town where they were to stop to change horses and to have some early dinner, of which the elder girl declared that she felt much in need.
An hour later they started again, to Paulina's satisfaction no other inside passenger appearing. A short though heavy thunder shower had somewhat cleared the air, the simple meal had refreshed them, and Paulina seemed quite to have recovered her good-temper. She grew talkative.
"Have you ever heard of the Marristons?" she asked. "My friends at the Priory, you know, where we are to spend a few days."
Clodagh shook her head.
"No," she replied. "You said in your last letter that you had a visit to pay on your way to the place where you intend to drink the waters, but you did not mention any names."
"Didn't I?" said Paulina carelessly. "Oh well, I'm not good at letter-writing. They're very nice people, and very kind. You needn't feel shy about going there," for Clodagh's manner and rising colour had already shown that shy she was. "It won't be a large party, as they are quite alone just now; just the father and mother, elderly people, their married son and his wife and two daughters, older than you and I." Paulina rather liked to make herself out younger than she was, when it suited her, though at other times she treated her cousin as if she were a complete child.
"I am glad of that," Clodagh replied. "Then," she went on, somewhat nervously, "perhaps you won't wear your very best dresses there, or shall I take out everything?" for this terrifying question of packing and unpacking was still uppermost in her mind.
"Oh dear me!" exclaimed Paulina crossly, "perhaps not. How can I say? You'll just have to see. That's what I want you for – to use your intelligence; don't you understand? I hate being asked about every trifle." Then, feeling that she had been speaking irritably, she went on more kindly: "I suppose you've got some tidy gowns of your own – your granny liked you to look nice, I know."
"I haven't got any proper evening gowns," said Clodagh. "I used to wear simple white muslin – not grown-up gowns, you know, but since grandmother died I've only had black."
"Ah yes, of course," Paulina agreed. "Well, just wear your nicest black in the evening. Your being in mourning will explain it's not being full dress. When we get to St. Aidan's" – the place where she intended to drink the waters – "I'll see about some gowns for you. I hear that the shops there are quite modish."
"Thank you," said Clodagh gratefully. But in her heart she was thinking: "Oh dear, if I'm to have more clothes, it will make the packing still worse, and where am I to put them if Cousin Paulina complains already of my luggage?"
But no more was said on the subject just then, and before very long they found themselves at Felway, where they left the coach, to complete the rest of the day's journey in Squire Marriston's chariot, which was awaiting them, as well as, to Paulina's satisfaction, a cart for their voluminous belongings.
The elder girl stepped into the roomy vehicle and glanced round her with approval.
"What a comfort to be less crowded up!" she exclaimed. "Clodagh, tell them to put everything in the cart. Just give me my satin mantle – these hot days sometimes end in chilly evenings – nothing else," and as her cousin obeyed her, "You are sure nothing was left in the coach?"
"Nothing," replied Clodagh confidently. "Still, I'll glance inside again, to make quite sure," and she did so, for the stage-coach was still there, waiting for fresh horses.
She came back to report satisfactorily, and they set off.
It was a longish drive, five or six miles, and the latter part through rough roads and lanes which reminded Clodagh of her native land.
"Thank goodness," said Paulina more than once, "that it is not winter or very wet weather. We should stick fast in the mud in these cart-tracks, to a certainty."
But before long they reached the Priory, safe and sound, and as they drove up the avenue, caught sight of two or three figures waiting to welcome them in front of the picturesque old house.
It was not a very large place, but home-like and attractive. Clodagh, who was accustomed to huge rambling "castles," often in a more or less dilapidated state, felt glad that this, the first English country-house she had seen, was smaller and less imposing, and the kind greetings of the Misses Marriston soon helped her to feel less shy and timid. It was long before these modern days of "five o'clock teas," but then dinner was proportionately early, and when the new-comers had shaken hands with the rest of the family, assembled in the hall to welcome them, Annot Marriston, the younger of the daughters and Paulina's special friend, proposed that the cousins should at once go up to their rooms.
"You will be glad to take off your travelling things," she said, "and dinner will be ready in less than an hour."
At this, Paulina's face fell, and Clodagh looked rather blank. For by this time they were standing in the spacious and comfortable guest-chamber prepared for the former, out of which opened a smaller but pleasant little room for her young cousin companion. But in neither, naturally enough, was there as yet any sign of their belongings.
"Dinner in less than an hour!" exclaimed Paulina; "and how am I to change my dress? I suppose, my dear Annot, the luggage-cart won't be here in time?"
Miss Annot shook her head.
"Not for an hour or nearly that, I fear," she replied. "It comes slowly. But there is room on the chariot for a box or two. I wish I had told the men to mention this, and then you could have brought on with you whatever you needed at once."
Paulina looked extremely annoyed.
"Clodagh," she said sharply, "you really might have thought of it."
Clodagh looked and felt guilty.
"I will do so another time," she murmured.
Annot felt sorry for her.
"I'll run down and enquire about the cart," she said. "Possibly it may not take as long as I said," and she was hastening off when Paulina stopped her, for she had sufficient good sense and feeling not to wish to begin their visit by a scene of ill-temper.
"After all," she said, "it does not very much matter, my dear Annot, if you all will kindly excuse our enforced deshabille, as I understand you are quite alone – just your own family party."
Annot hesitated a little.
"Ye-es," she replied. "Certainly only a family party. But I was just going to tell you that Cousin Felicity has arrived unexpectedly. She had retired to her own apartment before you drove up. That is her way, you know. She swoops down upon us without the slightest warning and off again in the same way."
"How very disagreeable!" ejaculated Paulina, but Miss Marriston hastened to correct her.
"No," she said, "on the contrary, we are always very pleased to see her. She is a most interesting person and has travelled immensely. At the same time, I confess that we are somewhat in awe of her, and always behave to her with the greatest deference and respect. She is a strange mixture. Sometimes she goes about like an old peasant or gipsy – no one knows how old she really is! But on occasions, always at dinner for instance, she dresses magnificently – her diamonds are a sight to see! That was why I hesitated just now, for I should have liked you to be in correct attire. I will just ask about the cart," and off she went, to return in a minute or two with the cheering information that there was every chance of the luggage arriving in about half an hour.
"And in the meantime," she said, "let me lend you brushes and combs, or whatever will help you to begin your toilet."
"Oh pray do so," said Clodagh gratefully. "Cousin Paulina, I am at least sure that I can arrange your hair so as to please you. I have really practised hair-dressing. I have so much of my own."
"Well, then," said Paulina, when kind Annot returned with the promised articles, "you may as well set to at once," and she proceeded to take off her hat and veil and other things. "I don't think I ever heard of this eccentric relative of yours before," she went on, turning to her friend. "She must be quite a character."
"That she is," was the reply. "I wonder I never told you about her. Mother is not sure that she really is a cousin, but she likes us to call her so. The relationship must be very distant, dating back to former generations, for both my parents remember her as an old lady when they were only children."
Here Clodagh gave a little exclamation. Annot stopped politely.
"Did you speak?" she said.
Clodagh blushed, as she often did.
"I beg your pardon," she replied. "I don't know what I meant. It suddenly struck me that I had already heard of some one like your cousin, so very old that no one living could remember the person, whoever it was, as anything but old. It is curious," she went on dreamily, "that I cannot recall where I heard it," for even then no remembrance of the landlady's mysterious description awoke in her mind.
"Well, what does it matter?" said Paulina sharply. "Don't worry about it when you are doing my hair. You gave it such a tug just now when you started so."
"I'm very sorry," said the girl, and she gave her whole attention to the work in hand, as to which she was really skilful.
Then Annot left them, repeating her hopes that the luggage would not be long of coming. "I quite think it may," she said, "for they took a good strong horse in the cart – not one of the ponies only."
But time went on. Paulina's "coiffure" was completed, happily to her satisfaction; the hands of the clock were fast approaching the dinner-hour, and no sign of the longed-for arrival.
"Only twenty minutes now," said Paulina. "Really I have never been so awkwardly placed before. I must say, Clodagh, I do think – " But these thoughts were destined to remain unrevealed, for at that moment there came portentous but most welcome sounds in the corridor outside the room, and in another moment a servant tapped at the door, and entering, requested the ladies kindly to direct the placing of the boxes.
Clodagh hurried out.
"All of yours had better be brought in here, I suppose, cousin?" she asked as she went.
"Of course, but not yet," Paulina exclaimed. "What are you thinking of, child? First of all I must get dressed. My black lace will be the quickest for to-night. It is in the brown leather imperial. Have that brought in, and – and the large despatch-box, and the rest can wait till we go downstairs."
The first-named case was carried to its place, and Paulina was busy selecting the key when Clodagh ran in with a startled face.
"Cousin," she exclaimed, "the despatch-box is not there!"
Paulina gave a shriek.
"Impossible – and with all my jewellery! Clodagh, you vowed that you saw everything off the coach, and I vow that I saw it lifted inside when I started."
"I did, I did see that everything was brought out," exclaimed Clodagh, now on the point of tears, when luckily, oh the relief of it, a highly respectable functionary in irreproachable attire appeared at the end of the passage, carrying with his own majestic hands the missing case.
"I have brought this myself, Madam," he said, addressing Paulina, "to see it delivered into your personal keeping, surmising that it was of importance."
"Oh thank you, thank you a thousand times," cried the younger girl impulsively in her joy, forgetting that she was not the person to reply, till her cousin, with a condescending gesture, answered stiffly: "I am obliged to you. You are quite right. The contents are of great value, and but for carelessness," with a glance at Clodagh, "the case should have come with ourselves in the chariot. It is not the kind of thing to be sent in a cart."
The butler, for such he was, bowed in reply.
"Exactly so," he said. "Another time I should advise – "
"Yes, yes," Clodagh interrupted. "I know it was my fault, but I shall understand better in future. Paulina, do make haste. I have got your dress out. We will be as quick as possible," she added, turning to the butler, who took the hint and with another bow his departure also.
And in an incredibly short time, thanks to Clodagh, whose eagerness seemed to give her two or three pairs of hands instead of one, the elder girl was attired, jewellery and all. She looked very handsome, and her young companion stepped back a step or two to admire her.
"Yes," said Paulina, glancing at the mirror with complacency, "I think I look all right. You're not half a bad maid, child, or let us say – "
"Never mind, if you're pleased, I don't care what I'm called," Clodagh interrupted. "If only," she added, with a little sigh, "if only I can learn about the luggage, the packing and unpacking and not losing things."
She opened the door as she spoke for her cousin to pass out, and for the first time, as she stood there, the colour of excitement in her face and the sparkle in her eyes, it struck Paulina that the "child," as she called her with half-contemptuous affection, was fast becoming a very pretty creature, and with this came a sudden flash of self-reproach, for there was nothing consciously selfish or small-minded about the elder girl, spoilt and self-willed and autocratic as she was.
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