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She stopped short with a gesture of horror.
"What have I been thinking of?" she exclaimed, "and you yourself, Clodagh? You're not dressed – you've not begun to dress, and the dinner-hour already or almost. Why didn't you remind me that you had to get ready too?"
"I really don't think it matters," she said. "I haven't got a proper grown-up gown to begin with, and really there wasn't time to get out my things too. I'm sure Mrs. Marriston will understand, and I daresay I can have a little dinner sent up to me, if you – "
But she stopped short, for just then Annot came running along the passage towards them. "Can I – ?" she was beginning, when, glancing at them and the confusion of boxes and bags lying about, she saw that there was something the matter. Paulina rapidly explained, and "Need I come down?" pleaded Clodagh.
"If she doesn't," persisted her cousin, "it will put everything wrong. It will look as if – as if – you know, Annot, I want her to be considered a sort of younger sister of mine. We are near relations. Clodagh, you don't want me to seem selfish and unkind."
Miss Annot considered.
"After all," she said, "Clodagh – may I call you so? – is scarcely grown-up, and being in mourning too. If you just arrange your hair a little, though really it does not look bad – it is so bright and wavy – and – let me see, I can lend you a pretty simple fichu – over your plain black bodice it will look rather well. Come with me – my room is close at hand."
And in two or three minutes they returned to where Paulina was anxiously awaiting them – Clodagh looking quite fresh and sweet in the half Puritan-like garb, with a bow of black velvet in her hair and a bunch of violets as a breast-knot.
"Yes," thought her cousin, "she's going to be quite a beauty. I must get her some proper clothes, but" – as her eye fell on the confused pile of their possessions beside her – "I don't know how ever she will manage all this, and yet I can't go about with a maid as well! I do hope for her sake as well as my own that I haven't been rash in this plan."
But she smiled pleasantly enough as she thanked Annot for her kind offices, and then the three made their way downstairs together.
The drawing-room, or "long parlour" as the Marristons called it, deserved the latter name, for long it was. In fact it had originally been two if not three rooms, of which the end one was the most important, as it was considerably wider than the other part. It was the "saloon" of the house, where on more formal occasions the family received their guests, though in an ordinary way their manners and customs, as was the case in those days, while by no means "free and easy," were simple and homely enough.
But a visit from Cousin Felicity, however sudden and unexpected, at once necessitated gala gowns; the opening of the "withdrawing-room"; longer and more ceremonious meals, and all things in accordance with what the strange guest considered due to her.
For the time being the upset concerning the luggage and the consequent hurry had caused both the new-comers to forget all about their fellow-visitor, and it was with no preoccupation of mind concerning her that Paulina and Clodagh, escorted by Annot, made their way down the long room, to where at the end the members of the family group, whose greetings they had already received, were awaiting them.As they drew near, their hostess approached.
"You have made good speed, dear Miss Paulina," she said kindly, "dinner is not yet announced. In the meantime allow me to introduce you to our esteemed friend and relative, whose visit has happily coincided with your own," and she took the young lady's hand and led her towards a large chair of state covered with magnificent brocade, on one side of the fireplace, in which sat a small figure – small, but for that very reason perhaps among others – so startling was the contrast with its costly attire and with its extraordinary dignity and stateliness – the very reverse of insignificant or unnoticeable.
Paulina half unconsciously drew back a little, slightly turning away. She was naturally of a haughty disposition, added to which, adulation and flattery had helped to spoil her, and at once she felt annoyed at being led forward like a child, to be presented to a complete stranger, and this disagreeable sensation was increased by the fact that the figure in the great chair remained motionless – motionless and mute. The small lady might have been a statue or a wax doll. But in spite of herself something made Paulina look straight at "Cousin Felicity," and now that she saw her at close quarters, the splendour of her jewels, the priceless lace in which she was draped, almost took away the younger woman's breath. She half gasped – and then, feeling her eyes caught and held as it were by the strange power of the piercing black ones, gleaming in the midst of the colourless little old face, Paulina, mistress of her emotions as she prided herself on being, Paulina, to whom timidity and shyness were unknown, felt her cheeks crimson, and hardly realising what she was doing, she curtseyed low and deferentially.
"Though, after all," as she said to herself a minute or two later, when she had recovered her usual, somewhat arrogant self-possession, "after all, hateful old cat though she is, she is an aged woman – too old to act these ridiculous travesties – and I hope I know what good breeding demands of politeness to our elders."
For, as this mention of her later reflections shows, Paulina was by no means as yet out of the wood.
The ancient lady held out her glittering hand.
"Does she expect me to kiss it?" the girl asked herself, when, to her horror, came a reply to the unspoken query.
"No," said Cousin Felicity, as she touched the tips of Paulina's now extended fingers, "no," and this was the first word she had uttered, "she does not. But what she sets far before curtseys and deference to fine clothes and diamonds is respectful behaviour to the poor and aged. How about the old peasant who presumed to intrude upon you this morning?"
Then Paulina knew, and she shivered. But her courage was good. "It was not only what you think, Madam," she replied, "you do me scarce justice. I desire to show respect to age. This morning I was taken aback. I was so newly roused."
Cousin Felicity bent her head, as if in royal pardon, though she did not speak, and Paulina turning quickly, was glad to catch hold of Annot, who with some of the others had drawn near in curiosity, though this was tempered by their familiarity with the strange old dame's eccentricity.
"You have met before?" Annot whispered. "She often frightens people at first," for she felt that her friend was trembling.
"I am not frightened," returned Paulina in the same tone. "I was only startled and – rather angry. I had forgotten all about what you told us. I will explain afterwards. I don't think people – especially old ladies – should play tricks to catch others."
Annot smiled, but she herself looked nervous.
"Dear Paulina," she pleaded, "for goodness sake, don't be angry. I told you she was not to be counted in any way as an ordinary person. Don't frown so. She may see it – oh no, she is now occupied with Clodagh. Just watch."
For by this time it was the younger girl's turn to be led up to the great armchair.
She had been standing a little in the background, standing there dreamily, as if she were trying to remember something. But she did not seem timid or shy when at a touch on the arm from her hostess she came quietly forward, her sweet Irish blue eyes, looking almost black under their long lashes, lifted with a sort of gentle, half-bewildered enquiry, as she drew near to the formidable little old lady.
And for the first time, as the keen, piercing glance of this redoubtable personage fell upon the young girl, a smile, softening the hard expression and marvellously rejuvenating the small dried-up features, crept over Cousin Felicity's face.
"Welcome, my dear," she said, as she held out her hand in an inviting though yet regal manner, and Clodagh, feeling, she knew not why, impelled to do so, stooped and kissed it gently and respectfully.
"Thank goodness," murmured such of the family as were near enough to watch the small drama, "thank goodness, she has taken a fancy to the child, and Clodagh is much more tactful than Paulina," for in their heart both Mrs. Marriston and her daughters had been trembling, especially since the reproof which the elder girl had received.
"I am glad to thank you for your courtesy to a lonely and homely old fellow-traveller this morning," Cousin Felicity continued, and then Clodagh's grave face brightened and a touch of colour came into it. She had scarcely overheard what had passed between Paulina and the aged guest, or rather perhaps she had been in too absent a mood to take it in. But now a look of relief spread over her, and she answered in her usual frank and simple way.
"Oh!" she said, "I am so glad you got here comfortably. I think we had both fallen asleep at the time you left the coach, and I – I was so sorry not to have been of any service to you – I had no idea we were bound for the same place," she added, with a little smile of surprise.
"Naturally," Cousin Felicity replied; "that is why I so fully appreciate your courtesy." And she gave an odd though not disagreeable little laugh as she went on: "I hope you lost none of your goods and chattels on the way? You seemed to be somewhat overburdened."
Clodagh drew still nearer to the old lady.
"Yes, indeed," she said. "I am not surprised at your noticing it." Paulina was not near enough to overhear, "We have a terrible number of packages," and her face grew anxious at the remembrance. "It was that, partly, that made my cousin seem so cross," she went on, lowering her voice. "We were so crowded up. And I am so unused to travelling. I don't know how I shall manage. Paulina is so kind to me, and of course I must learn to be of real use to her."
The elder Miss Marriston, Thomasine by name, was standing near. She smiled at Clodagh's sudden, almost childish outburst of confidence – afterwards Clodagh felt at a loss to explain it to herself, for as a rule she was by no means a chatterbox – and remarked, though with a touch of deferential apology in her tone:
"Our Cousin Felicity is the genius of travelling in person. If she would teach you some of her experience, Miss Clodagh, you would indeed be fortunate. We always do say, you know, dear cousin, that you manage as if by magic."
The old lady smiled. She did not seem ill-pleased.
"Yes," said Clodagh, glancing almost with reverence at the exquisite yellowish lace, of cobweb-like texture, draping its owner's skirt, "to see all these lovely treasures of attire, one wonders how it can be so quickly arranged and re-arranged – and packed! For, as far as I remember, Madam, you carried but little with you."
Cousin Felicity smiled again.
"You are right," she said. "I detest encumbrances. I travel with the smallest amount of luggage possible. Not that this lace would add to it – " and she passed her jewelled fingers over it fondly. "All I am wearing could go through a wedding ring. It belonged to my – ah, well, we need not say how far back among my ancestors it dates from."
"It was made in fairyland, I believe," murmured Clodagh, and then there stole across her memory some of the old tales and sayings she had heard in her nursery – how that the "good folk," the "little people," reckon not age and time as we do – that five centuries is in fairyland but as five years, if that, to us. And the story of little Bridget, whose human life ebbed out "between the dawn and morrow," poor little Bridget! recurred to her with a slight shiver. It must have shown in her eyes as she raised them again to her new friend's strange face. But what she read there reassured her in some mysterious way, and then, as if a door or window had suddenly opened in her mind, there flashed into her remembrance all that the landlady of the old inn had told her that very morning about the mysterious and fitful lady in the neighbourhood.
"It is she herself," thought Clodagh. "How extraordinary that I did not guess it before! But, fairy or no fairy, she wishes me nothing but good," and a sweet, grateful smile lighted up the young girl's face, chasing away the first vague misgivings.
"Yes," came in a very soft whisper to her ears, "yes, my dear, you know something about me, and before we part we must have some talk together," but to this there was no time for her to reply, as at that moment dinner was announced and the elder Mr. Marriston came forward to offer his arm to the venerable guest.
Somehow, though she found herself for the first time in her life among strangers, Clodagh did not feel shy or ill at ease. She had an underlying consciousness that she was kindly regarded, for her own sake as well as to please her cousin. Paulina, who by this time had regained her self-possession, was gentler than her wont, and did not speak much. Indeed, though all passed pleasantly there was an indefinite feeling of formality and ceremony not usual in the cheerful and friendly family group.
"It is not half as lively and amusing with that old – " "cat," Paulina was probably going to say but for a "hush" from Clodagh, for it was to her young cousin she was whispering on their way to the drawing-room. "Well – with her here," she continued. "They are all so desperately in awe of her, I can't understand it."
"But do be careful," urged Clodagh. "She may overhear, and you really should be polite and respectful. As you say yourself, age alone demands it."
"I'm not going to be rude," Paulina replied, and she meant what she said, though in her heart she had not forgiven the reproof she had received, especially as she knew she had deserved it. But just as they were entering the long parlour, Clodagh stopped her.
"Cousin," she said, "I cannot rest with the thought of all our things – yours especially – in such confusion upstairs. Will you allow me to go to our rooms now and arrange them, partly at least? I am sure Mrs. Marriston and her daughters will excuse me, if you explain to them."
Paulina hesitated. She had a horror of seeming to treat her young relation as an inferior, and yet she saw that it would really be kinder to agree. Just then Thomasine came up to them, and on Paulina's putting the question to her she took Clodagh's part.
"Yes," she said, "I think it would be far better than for this child to stay down till late, and then probably not get to bed for ever so long." For the Marristons fully understood the position. So Clodagh, much relieved, bade Thomasine a cheerful good-night and ran off.
She worked hard – unpacking, separating, to some extent packing again, for the weather was very hot and she knew that certain clothes could not possibly be required during the few days of their stay at the Priory. She was quick and intelligent and sensible, still she was very young and her task was not an easy one, and but for her extreme anxiety to be of real use to her cousin, she would almost have despaired of managing it.
"But it would never do for me to lose heart at the first start," she said to herself, "and of course, unless I prove fit for the post, Paulina could not afford to keep me with her, as Lady Roseley explained. For she is not very rich, and it is such a blessing to be with her instead of with strangers who knew nothing about me except that I was poor and homeless."
So she cheered up and worked on bravely. The evenings were long, for it was barely past midsummer, and the dinner had been early, so she had time enough to arrange her cousin's belongings, though she had scarcely touched her own, when Paulina made her appearance yawning and wishing herself in bed.
"Good gracious, child!" she exclaimed, as she caught sight of Clodagh, "are you at it still? Why, I expected to find you undressed at least, if not in bed. But I must say you seem to have a head on your shoulders. My things look most methodically arranged. And how about your own?"
"Oh," said Clodagh, much pleased, in spite of feeling very sleepy and tired, "I shall soon get them done. I will not make any noise if you go to bed now, but I should like to feel things were tidy before – "
But Paulina interrupted her.
"Nonsense," she said. "I insist on your going to bed yourself. Just get out what is absolutely necessary. You can finish in the morning, and remember," she went on, for she was standing with the door open, and the corridor was still encumbered, "remember to ask the servants to pile up or carry away some of these boxes. One can scarcely get in and out of the rooms. I wish your luggage were a little more concentrated. You have such a number of small cases and bags."
"Yes," Clodagh agreed. "You see I have never travelled any distance till now," and she eyed her goods and chattels somewhat disconsolately.
"We must arrange about it," said Paulina vaguely. "But now, get to bed quickly," and after all, Clodagh felt that she really was getting too sleepy to do more than was unavoidable, and in a short time both girls were fast asleep, Clodagh's last waking thought being a resolve to get up very early indeed to complete her arrangements.
"I wish I could have got it all done to-night, but anyway the confusion outside could not be cleared till to-morrow."
She was tired and she slept soundly, still not quite dreamlessly. One very queer experience she had, and even when she was wide-awake, and daylight streaming in, she could not make up her mind if it had been dream or reality.
This was it, "and," she said to herself, "I am almost certain I was awake."
It was midsummer weather, as I said, so the window was wide open, and suddenly through the silence Clodagh heard a familiar sound. It was that of bees humming. It grew nearer and nearer, and opening her eyes – or dreaming that she did so – she looked up. The room was flooded with moonlight, and in it she perceived the source of the sound. Two large bees were buzzing about, very busy apparently, but as there were no flowers on the table or mantelpiece, Clodagh wondered sleepily what could have attracted them.
"I hope they won't sting me," she thought, for the humming grew nearer, and then, strange to say, out of it gradually soft-whispering words shaped themselves.
"Don't wake her, whatever you do," said one bee. "She is fast asleep and we must obey orders."
"But we can't help humming," murmured the other.
"Well, hum gently. It will soothe her, and let us set to work, for there is plenty to do before daylight."
That was all she heard, and soothe her the sound must have done, for she knew nothing more till she really and unmistakably awoke, to see the sunshine – the lovely, clear early summer morning sunshine – pouring in, to hear the dear birds welcoming another happy beautiful day.
Clodagh started up. She had never felt fresher or brighter; all last night's tiredness had gone. She was used to early rising, and felt that to stay lazily in bed was impossible.
"It would be delicious out-of-doors," she thought, "but I must finish the tidying and sorting, if possible before Paulina awakes," and she sprang out of bed.
But – she rubbed her eyes – was she dreaming? The cupboards, of which there were two in the old-fashioned room, the roomy chest of drawers, all stood open, as if to exhibit their contents and demand approval, and in them were arranged with the perfection of neatness and judiciousness all her possessions, last night in disorder and barely unpacked. And on a chair lay her garments for the day, not only those she had herself placed there, but a spotless cool white gown – much cooler than the black one she had travelled with – the very one she had been hoping to get out and don that morning.
"Have I done it all in my sleep?" she asked, and then some undefined feeling made her open the door and peep out into the passage. Wonder of wonders! All the confusion had disappeared. There stood there, in dignified importance, two roomy, substantial trunks only, one of which she recognised as her cousin's principal one, with her initials in small brass nails on the lid, the other, similar in make and appearance, with the first letters of her own two names marked in the same way. The very sort of thing she had begun to long for since seeing Paulina's.
She lifted the lid – a series of trays was disclosed, and examining further, she perceived at the bottom, most beautifully folded, all her own thicker clothing, gowns and woollens quite unsuitable for present wear, and as she went on in breathless excitement to peer into her cousin's, there was the same arrangement. The very garments she had herself put aside for the present, the evening before, lay there undisturbed, or rather, she suspected, far more exquisitely folded than she had left them. And all the rest, the bandboxes and carpet-bags and unbusiness-like odds and ends she had brought over the sea, had disappeared, as if by magic.
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