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were far too large for the little dimpled fingers, but as Betty had told her they were to last her for years, it was all very well. She trembled many a time, and almost turned faint once with the long expectation of the morning. Betty might say what she liked about a watched pot never boiling; Molly never ceased to watch the approach through the winding street, and after two hours the carriage came for her at last. She had to sit very forward to avoid crushing the Miss Brownings' new dresses; and yet not too forward, for fear of incommoding fat Mrs. Goodenough and her niece, who occupied the front seat of the carriage; so that altogether the fact of sitting down at all was rather doubtful, and to add to her discomfort, Molly felt herself to be very conspicuously placed in the centre of the carriage, a mark for all the observation of Hollingford. It was far too much of a gala day for the work of the little town to go forward with its usual regularity. Maid-servants gazed out of upper windows; shopkeepers' wives stood on the doorsteps; cottagers ran out, with babies in their arms; and little children, too young to know how to behave respectfully at the sight of an earl's carriage, huzzaed merrily as it bowled along. The woman at the lodge held the gate open, and dropped a low curtsey to the liveries. And now they were in the Park; and now they were in sight of the Towers, and silence fell upon the carriage-full of ladies, only broken by one faint remark from Mrs. Goodenough's niece, a stranger to the town, as they drew up before the double semicircle flight of steps which led to the door of the mansion.
'They call that a perron, I believe, don't they?' she asked. But the only answer she obtained was a simultaneous 'hush.' It was very awful, as Molly thought, and she half wished herself at home again. But she lost all consciousness of herself by-and-by when the party strolled out into the beautiful grounds, the like of which she had never even imagined. Green velvet lawns, bathed in sunshine, stretched away on every side into the finely wooded park; if there were divisions and ha- has between the soft sunny sweeps of grass, and the dark gloom of the forest-trees beyond, Molly did not see them; and the melting away of exquisite cultivation into the wilderness had an inexplicable charm to her. Near the house there were walls and fences; but they were covered with climbing roses, and rare honeysuckles and other creepers just bursting into bloom, There were flower-beds, too, scarlet, crimson, blue, orange; masses of blossom lying on the greensward. Molly held Miss Browning's hand very tight as they loitered about in company with several other ladies, and marshalled by a daughter of the Towers, who seemed half amused at the voluble admiration showered down upon every possible thing and place. Molly said nothing, as became her age and position, but every now and then she relieved her full heart by drawing a deep breath, almost like a sigh. Presently they came to the long glittering range of greenhouses and hothouses, and an attendant gardener was there to admit the party. Molly did not care for this half so much as for the flowers in the open air; but Lady Agnes had a more scientific taste, she expatiated on the rarity of this, and the mode of cultivation required by that plant, till Molly began to feel very tired, and then very faint. She was too shy to speak for some time; but at length, afraid of making a greater sensation if she began to cry, or if she fell against the stands of precious flowers, she caught at Miss Browning's hand, and gasped out,--'May I go back, out into the garden? I can't breathe here!'
'Oh, yes, to be sure, love. I dare say it's hard understanding for you, love; but it's very fine and instructive, and a deal of Latin in it too.'
She turned hastily round not to lose another word of Lady Agnes' lecture on orchids, and Molly turned back and passed out of the heated atmosphere. She felt better in the fresh air; and unobserved, and at liberty, went from one lovely spot to another, now in the open park, now in some shut-in flower-garden, where the song of the birds, and the drip of the central fountain, were the only sounds, and the tree-tops made an enclosing circle in the blue June sky; she went along without more thought as to her whereabouts than a butterfly has, as it skims from flower to flower, till at length she grew very weary, and wished to return to the house, but did not know how, and felt afraid of encountering all the strangers who would be there, unprotected by either of the Miss Brownings. The hot sun told upon her head, and it began to ache. She saw a great wide-spreading cedar-tree upon a burst of lawn towards which she was advancing, and the black repose beneath its branches lured her thither. There was a rustic seat in the shadow, and weary Molly sate down there, and presently fell asleep.
She was startled from her slumbers after a time, and jumped to her feet. Two ladies were standing by her, talking about her. They were perfect strangers to her, and with a vague conviction that she had done something wrong, and also because she was worn-out with hunger, fatigue, and the morning's excitement, she began to cry.
'Poor little woman! She has lost herself; she belongs to some of the people from Hollingford, I have no doubt,' said the oldest-looking of the two ladies; she who appeared to be about forty, although she did not really number more than thirty years. She was plain-featured, and had rather a severe expression on her face; her dress was as rich as any morning dress could be; her voice deep and unmodulated,--what in a lower rank of life would have been called gruff; but that was not a word to apply to Lady Cuxhaven, the eldest daughter of the earl and countess. The other lady looked much younger, but she was in fact some years the elder; at first sight Molly thought she was the most beautiful person she had ever seen, and she was certainly a very lovely woman. Her voice, too, was soft and plaintive, as she replied to Lady Cuxhaven,--
'Poor little darling! she is overcome by the heat, I have no doubt-- such a heavy straw bonnet, too. Let me untie it for you, my dear.'
Molly now found voice to say,--'I am Molly Gibson, please. I came here with the Miss Brownings;' for her great fear was that she should be taken for an unauthorized intruder.
'The Miss Brownings?' said Lady Cuxhaven to her companion, as if inquiringly.
'I think they were the two tall large young women that Lady Agnes was taking about.'
'Oh, I dare say. I saw she had a number of people in tow;' then looking again at Molly, she said, 'Have you had anything to eat, child, since you came? You look a very white little thing; or is it the heat?'
'I have had nothing to eat,' said Molly, rather piteously; for, indeed, before she fell asleep she had been very hungry.
The two ladies spoke to each other in a low voice; then the elder said in a voice of authority, which, indeed, she had always used in speaking to the other, 'Sit still here, my dear; we are going to the house, and Clare shall bring you something to eat before you try to walk back; it must be a quarter of a mile at least.' So they went away, and Molly sate upright, waiting for the promised messenger. She did not know who Clare might be, and she did not care much for food now; but she felt as if she could not walk without some help. At length she saw the pretty lady coming back, followed by a footman with a small tray.
'Look how kind Lady Cuxhaven is,' said she who was called Clare. 'She chose out this little lunch herself; and now you must try and eat it, and you'll be quite right when you've had some food, darling--You need not stop, Edwards; I will bring the tray back with me.'
There was some bread, and some cold chicken, and some jelly, and a glass of wine, and a bottle of sparkling water, and a bunch of grapes; Molly put out her trembling little hand for the water; but she was too faint to hold it. Clare put it to her mouth, and she took a long draught and was refreshed. But she could not eat; she tried, but she could not; her headache was too bad. Clare looked bewildered. 'Take some grapes, they will be the best for you; you must try and eat something, or I don't know how I shall get you to the house.'
'My head aches so,' said Molly, lifting her heavy eyes wistfully.
'Oh, dear, how tiresome!' said Clare, still in her sweet gentle voice, not at all as if she was angry, only expressing an obvious truth. Molly felt very guilty and very unhappy. Clare went on, with a shade of asperity in her tone: 'You see, I don't know what to do with you here if you don't eat enough to enable you to walk home. And I've been out for these three hours trapesing about the grounds till I'm as tired as can be, and missed my lunch and all.' Then, as if a new idea had struck her, she said,--'You lie back in that seat for a few minutes, and try to eat the bunch of grapes, and I'll wait for you, and just be eating a mouthful meanwhile. You are sure you don't want this chicken?'
Molly did as she was bid, and leant back, picking languidly at the grapes, and watching the good appetite with which the lady ate up the chicken and jelly, and drank the glass of wine. She was so pretty and so graceful in her deep mourning, that even her hurry in eating, as if she was afraid of some one coming to surprise her in the act, did not keep her little observer from admiring her in all she did.
'And now, darling, are you ready to go?' said she, when she had eaten up everything on the tray. 'Oh, come; you have nearly finished your grapes; that's a good girl. Now, if you will come with me to the side entrance, I will take you up to my own room, and you shall lie down on the bed for an hour or two; and if you have a good nap your headache will be quite gone.'
So they set off, Clare carrying the empty tray, rather to Molly's shame; but the child had enough work to drag herself along, and was afraid of offering to do anything more. The 'side entrance' was a flight of steps leading up from a private flower-garden into a private matted hall, or ante-room, out of which many doors opened, and in which were deposited the light garden-tools and the bows and arrows of the young ladies of the house. Lady Cuxhaven must have seen their approach, for she met them in this hall as soon as they came in.
'How is she now?' she asked; then glancing at the plates and glasses, she added, 'Come, I think there can't be much amiss! You're a good old Clare, but you should have let one of the men fetch that tray in; life in such weather as this is trouble enough of itself.'
Molly could not help wishing that her pretty companion would have told Lady Cuxhaven that she herself had helped to finish up the ample luncheon; but no such idea seemed to come into her mind. She only said,--'Poor dear! she is not quite the thing yet; has got a headache, she says. I am going to put her down on my bed, to see if she can get a little sleep.'
Molly saw Lady Cuxhaven say something in a half-laughing manner to 'Clare,' as she passed her; and the child could not keep from tormenting herself by fancying that the words spoken sounded wonderfully like 'Over-eaten herself, I suspect.' However, she felt too poorly to worry herself long; the little white bed in the cool and pretty room had too many attractions for her aching head. The muslin curtains flapped softly from time to time in the scented air that came through the open windows. Clare covered her up with a light shawl, and darkened the room. As she was going away Molly roused herself to say, 'Please, ma'am, don't let them go away without me. Please ask somebody to waken me if I go to sleep. I am to go back with the Miss Brownings.'
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