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the earl trotted, attracted by the sight of the farmer's eldest son on the other side of the yard.
Mr. Gibson mounted, and he and Molly rode off. They did not speak for some time. Then she said, 'May I go, papa?' in rather an anxious little tone of voice.
'Where, my dear?' said he, wakening up out of his own professional thoughts.
'To the Towers--on Thursday, you know. That gentleman' (she was shy of calling him by his title) 'asked me.'
'Would you like it, my dear? It has always seemed to me rather a tiresome piece of gaiety--rather a tiring day, I mean--beginning so early--and the heat, and all that.'
'Oh, papa!' said Molly reproachfully.
'You'd like to go then, would you?'
'Yes if I may!--He asked me, you know. Don't you think I may?--he asked me twice over.'
'Well! we'll see--yes! I think we can manage it, if you wish it so much, Molly.'
Then they were silent again. By-and-by, Molly said:
'Please, papa--I do wish to go--but I don't care about it.'
'That's rather a puzzling speech. But I suppose you mean you don't care to go, if it will be any trouble to get you there. I can easily manage it, however, so you may consider it settled. You'll want a white frock, remember; you'd better tell Betty you're going, and she'll see after making you tidy.'
Now, there were two or three things to be done by Mr. Gibson, before he could feel quite comfortable about Molly's going to the festival at the Towers, and each of them involved a little trouble on his part. But he was very willing to gratify his little girl; so the next day he rode over to the Towers, ostensibly to visit some sick housemaid, but, in reality, to throw himself in my lady's way, and get her to ratify Lord Cumnor's invitation to Molly. He chose his time, with a little natural diplomacy; which, indeed, he had often to exercise in his intercourse with the great family. He rode into the stable-yard about twelve o'clock, a little before luncheon-time, and yet after the worry of opening the post-bag and discussing its contents was over. After he had put up his horse, he went in by the back-way to the house; the 'House' on this side, the 'Towers' at the front. He saw his patient, gave his directions to the housekeeper, and then went out, with a rare wild- flower in his hand, to find one of the ladies Tranmere in the garden, where, according to his hope and calculation, he came upon Lady Cumnor too--now talking to her daughter about the contents of an open letter which she held in her hand, now directing a gardener about certain bedding-out plants.
'I was calling to see Nanny, and I took the opportunity of bringing Lady Agnes the plant I was telling her about as growing on Cumnor Moss.'
'Thank you so much, Mr. Gibson. Mamma, look! this is the _Drosera rotundifolia_ I have been wanting so long.'
'Ah! yes; very pretty I daresay, only I am no botanist. Nanny is better, I hope? We can't have any one laid up next week, for the house will be quite full of people--and here are the Danbys waiting to offer themselves as well. One comes down for a fortnight of quiet, at Whitsuntide, and leaves half one's establishment in town, and as soon as people know of our being here, we get letters without end, longing for a breath of country air, or saying how lovely the Towers must look in spring; and I must own, Lord Cumnor is a great deal to blame for it all, for as soon as ever we are down here, he rides about to all the neighbours, and invites them to come over and spend a few days.'
'We shall go back to town on Friday the 18th,' said Lady Agnes, in a consolatory tone.
'Ah, yes! as soon as we have got over the school visitors' affair. But it is a week to that happy day.'
'By the way!' said Mr. Gibson, availing himself of the good opening thus presented, 'I met my lord at the Cross-trees Farm yesterday, and he was kind enough to ask my little daughter, who was with me, to be one of the party here on Thursday; it would give the lassie great pleasure, I believe.' He paused for Lady Cumnor to speak.
'Oh, well! if my lord asked her, I suppose she must come, but I wish he was not so amazingly hospitable! Not but what the little girl will be quite welcome; only, you see, he met a younger Miss Browning the other day, of whose existence I had never heard.'
'She visits at the school, mamma,' said Lady Agnes.
'Well, perhaps she does; I never said she did not. I knew there was one visitor of the name of Browning; I never knew there were two, but, of course, as soon as Lord Cumnor heard there was another, he must needs ask her; so the carriage will have to go backwards and forwards four times now to fetch them all. So your daughter can come quite easily, Mr. Gibson, and I shall be very glad to see her for your sake. She can sit bodkin with the Brownings, I suppose? You'll arrange it all with them; and mind you get Nanny well up to her work next week.'
Just as Mr. Gibson was going away, Lady Cumnor called after him, 'Oh! by-the-bye, Clare is here; you remember Clare, don't you? She was a patient of yours, long ago.'
'Clare!' he repeated, in a bewildered tone.
'Don't you recollect her? Miss Clare, our old governess,' said Lady Agnes. 'About twelve or fourteen years ago, before Lady Cuxhaven was married.'
'Oh, yes!' said he. 'Miss Clare, who had the scarlet fever here; a very pretty delicate girl. But I thought she was married!'
'Yes!' said Lady Cumnor. 'She was a silly little thing, and did not know when she was well off; we were all very fond of her, I'm sure. She went and married a poor curate, and became a stupid Mrs. Kirkpatrick; but we always kept on calling her 'Clare.' And now he's dead, and left her a widow, and she is staying here; and we are racking our brains to find out some way of helping her to a livelihood without parting her from her child. She's somewhere about the grounds, if you like to renew your acquaintance with her.'
'Thank you, my lady. I'm afraid I cannot stop to-day. I have a long round to go; I've stayed here too long as it is, I'm afraid.'
Long as his ride had been that day, he called on the Miss Brownings in the evening, to arrange about Molly's accompanying them to the Towers. They were tall handsome women, past their first youth, and inclined to be extremely complaisant to the widowed doctor.
'Eh dear! Mr. Gibson, but we shall he delighted to have her with us. You should never have thought of asking us such a thing,' said Miss Browning the elder.
'I'm sure I'm hardly sleeping at nights for thinking of it,' said Miss Phoebe. 'You know I've never been there before. Sister has many a time; but somehow, though my name has been down on the visitors' list these three years, the countess has never named me in her note; and you know I could not push myself into notice, and go to such a grand place without being asked; how could I?'
'I told Phoebe last year,' said her sister, 'that I was sure it was only inadvertence, as one may call it, on the part of the countess, and that her ladyship would be as hurt as any one when she didn't see Phoebe among the school visitors; but Phoebe has got a delicate mind, you see Mr. Gibson, and for all I could say she wouldn't go, but stopped here at home; and it spoilt all my pleasure all that day, I do assure you, to think of Phoebe's face, as I saw it over the window- blinds, as I rode away; her eyes were full of tears, if you'll believe me.'
'I had a good cry alter you was gone, Sally,' said Miss Phoebe; 'but for all that, I think I was right in stopping away from where I was not asked. Don't you, Mr. Gibson?'
'Certainly,' said he. 'And you see you are going this year; and last year it rained.'
'Yes! I remember! I set myself to tidy my drawers, to string myself up, as it were; and I was so taken up with what I was about that I was quite startled when I heard the rain beating against the window-panes. 'Goodness me!' said I to myself, 'whatever will become of sister's white satin shoes, if she has to walk about on soppy grass after such rain as this?' for, you see, I thought a deal about her having a pair of smart shoes; and this year she has gone and got me a white satin pair just as smart as hers, for a surprise.'
'Molly will know she's to put on her best clothes,' said Miss Browning. 'We could perhaps lend her a few beads, or artificials, if she wants them.'
'Molly must go in a clean white frock,' said Mr. Gibson, rather hastily; for he did not admire the Miss Brownings' taste in dress, and was unwilling to have his child decked up according to their fancy; he esteemed his old servant Betty's as the more correct, because the more simple. Miss Browning had just a shade of annoyance in her tone as she drew herself up, and said, 'Oh! very well. It's quite right, I'm sure.' But Miss Phoebe said, 'Molly will look very nice in whatever she puts on, that's certain.'
A NOVICE AMONGST THE GREAT FOLK
At ten o'clock on the eventful Thursday the Towers' carriage began its work. Molly was ready long before it made its first appearance, although it had been settled that she and the Miss Brownings were not to go until the last, or fourth, time of its coming. Her face had been soaped, scrubbed, and shone brilliantly clean; her frills, her frock, her ribbons were all snow-white. She had on a black mode cloak that had been her mother's; it was trimmed round with rich lace, and looked quaint and old-fashioned on the child. For the first time in her life she wore kid gloves; hitherto she had only had cotton ones. Her gloves
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