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The Carriagemaker's Daughter

The Carriagemaker's Daughter by Amy Lake
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As Helène Phillips trudges through wet November snow to her new post as governess for the Marquess of Luton, she is nearly run down by a horse and rider. Lord Charles Quentin, the rider, is a guest at Luton and the two will soon make a deeper acquaintance—if they can avoid the machinations of Celia, the Marquess’s wife…

Regency Romance by Amy Lake; originally published by Five Star

Belgrave House; March 2002
240 pages; ISBN 9780786240135
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: The Carriagemaker's Daughter
Author: Amy Lake
 
Excerpt

The position of governess is a respectable one for a young lady with an impeccable reputation and few expectations.

Helène let her portmanteau drop to the snow at the side of the road and sighed, rubbing her arm. It was not that the bag was heavy–her belongings were pitifully few–but the two miles or more from the coach stop to the Sinclair estate was a long way to carry something so unwieldy. Even as cold as it was on this late November afternoon, she was beginning to perspire.

Helène peered down the road uneasily, noting that it would soon be dark.

She wondered again why no one had met the coach, since the letter detailing her travel arrangements must surely have arrived at the estate by now. Yesterday’s early morning start from a gloomy, soot-ridden London had been bad enough. Then there was the day and a half spent crammed in a mail coach with an odd assortment of other passengers, a number of whom were not particularly clean. The lecherous comments from several of the men, the incessant arguments over whether or not to keep the windows open–

 It wasn’t an experience she cared to repeat. And the inn they had stopped at last night!  She was still scratching from the bed bugs.

In short, Helène was in no mood for excuses. Perhaps she should plan a set-down to give Lady Sinclair when she finally arrived at Luton Court.

How dare you–

I am not accustomed to being treated–

The Prince will be informed of your outrageous–

Helène repressed a tired giggle, imagining the scene. She would say nothing of the kind, of course. She needed this position, and an impoverished spinster of evidently humble family had no business complaining about anything to the likes of the Marquess and Marchioness of Luton.

You are a governess, Helène reminded herself. They are Quality. You may not like the rules but you do have to play by them. She rested a few more minutes, sitting on the portmanteau, before getting to her feet and trudging on. It had been a mistake to stop, she decided. The struggle to carry her bag had taken her mind from how hungry she was, and now her empty stomach clamored for attention.

Botheration. Helène winced as the strap dug cruelly into her hand. If only I had a rope, she thought. I could tie one end around my waist and one end to the portmanteau and drag the blasted thing behind me. Through the snow and mud and all.

It would hardly matter, since she couldn’t be any dirtier than she was already after a day and a half in the mail coach. Helène’s thoughts moved to an uneasy consideration of her appearance. A governess was not required to be a fashion plate–in fact, it was discouraged–but her employers had every right to expect a reasonably tidy appearance. Helène wasn’t sure she still qualified in that respect. She had lost weight in the stress of recent months and, although the brown merino wool had some years of service left in it, the dress now hung loosely around her waist.

I look like I’m wearing a sack, thought Helène gloomily. And not a very clean sack, at that. The revolting man sitting next to her in the coach–the one who kept pretending to brush dirt from her bodice–had not been careful with the greasy chicken he was eating– 

Best not to think about him. But her skirts still showed the evidence of his noonday meal. Helène stopped and set the portmanteau down once again. She pushed the hood of her cloak aside and felt her hair. It was impossibly tangled, as usual, and half of it seemed to have fallen down around her ears. She rearranged several hairpins, jabbing blindly at the heavy mass  in yet another futile attempt to wrestle her curls under control. She found little else to be cheered by in her appearance–her nose was a bit too long, her mouth too wide, her brilliant green eyes too bold–but Helène harbored a secret pride in her hair. Glossy and thick, its deep auburn color complimented the warm ivory of her complexion. Unbound, the silky locks fell in curls past her waist.

“I’ll be cutting it off any day now, you daft girl,” her father had told her, time and again. “Hair like that is the sign of the devil, don’t you know, and a waste of time for the likes of you. ’Tis not like there’s to be suitors banging at your door–”

Helène grimaced at the memory, though his words had been said affectionately, in jest. She never believed he would carry through on his threat. Still, in London, hair was only one more commodity, and if she could have convinced her father to eat a bit of meat, she would have cut off the tresses herself and sold them for a fine hock of lamb. But in the last few months of his life Nathaniel Phillips had wished for naught but his ale.

At the thought of food Helène’s stomach growled, and she glanced down involuntarily at the bodice of her dress. A sapphire ring was pinned carefully in the lining, its large stone hidden from the waning rays of the November sun.

If she had known of that to sell, ’twould have been food for a year.

Helène walked on as the sun sank lower in the sky and the surrounding hills took on the bluish cast of a winter’s evening. The broad hills and meadows of Bedfordshire were beautiful in the twilight, but Helène was feeling the first glimmering of fear. She really did not want to be outside after dark on a cold November’s night. Her exertions no longer kept her warm, and her feet especially felt the cold, her toes almost numb, even through the leather of her half-boots.

What could Lady Sinclair have been thinking, to risk her new governess freezing to death before she’d even arrived?   She didn’t know the district, and it was certainly possible, thought Helène, that she might miss the turn-off to Luton Court in the dark. Perhaps she had missed it already!  Her heart began to pound and she forced herself to breathe slowly. No matter how bad the situation, it would never do to panic. Now think–had she passed any cottages along the road?

No. She’d seen not another living soul or habitation since the coach had driven away.

But how much farther could it be?  How long had she been walking?

Helène cursed herself for being a fool and not demanding more assistance from the coach’s driver before he left. But the man had been ill-tempered and rude and she’d been sure someone from Luton would arrive at any moment.

Stupid. Stupid, stupid girl, to go haring off from the coach stop with no plan in her head other than she would soon find Luton Court conjured up in front of her. Should she keep walking?  Should she attempt to find some kind of shelter for the night?  Deep in contemplation of her precarious circumstances, Helène didn’t hear the rider as he approached. Suddenly–

“H’yah!”

An enormous chestnut stallion was almost on top of her. Rearing up, its forelegs flailed the air as Helène backed away. She tripped over the portmanteau and fell hard to the ground.

“H’yah!”  The rider yelled and the horse reared again. Helène rolled from under the plunging hooves, gasping as her hood fell back and snow cascaded over her face and down her neck. She managed to scramble off the road, but without her luggage. Down, down came the horse and she watched, horrified, as the portmanteau was trampled into a muddy, crumpled heap.

“What the devil?” she thought she heard the man shout. What the devil, indeed!  The rider brought his mount under control and Helène shakily pushed herself to her knees. She started to brush the snow from her hair, taking care to keep clear of the stallion, which was still fitful and stomping. The man swore the entire time in a low, steady voice, using a number of words that she found unfamiliar.

That’s a surprise, thought Helène, her mind starting to recover from the fright. One would have thought I’d heard them all by now. She clambered to her feet and glared up at him.

“What in heaven’s name are you about?” said the man. The cursing had stopped but the voice still betrayed his irritation. A deep voice. Strong. She looked up at him without speaking, half-dazed from the shock of being nearly trampled under-hoof.

“Standing in the middle of a public road like that!” he continued. “Young women with no common sense shouldn’t be allowed out on their own.”

Common sense–!  Indignation cleared Helène’s thoughts.

“And gentlemen who can’t keep charge of their animal shouldn’t be allowed on a horse,” she snapped, brushing more snow out of her hood and off her skirt. Her heart was pounding from the encounter and she hoped the man couldn’t see that her hands trembled. What a nasty, disagreeable person!  She finished removing the snow and eyed her skirt in annoyance. A number of mud stains now competed with the chicken grease on the front of the brown wool. Heavens, at this rate she’d be lucky if Lady Sinclair allowed her into the house.

The stallion sidled nervously and neighed. Helène looked up to see the man staring down at her, an expression of amusement on his face.

“I’m willing to concede the point,” he told her,  “but only because it’s too cold to stand here and argue. Come, where’s your home?  I’ll take you back–”

He stopped suddenly and looked down at the portmanteau, as if seeing it for the first time.

“What’s all this?” he asked her. “If you are running away, mademoiselle, I must inform you that the middle of November is a poor time for it.”

Helène sighed. “Pour vrai, monsieur,” she told him. “I’m sure you are correct. But as it happens, I am en route to my employer’s estate, and I am no more eager than you to stand here and discuss it in the cold. Now if you will excuse me–”

She bent down to pick up the battered portmanteau, keeping a wary eye on the restless stallion. But the man, who had cocked his eyebrow at her refined accent–or perhaps the scrap of French–muttered something under his breath and dismounted to stand in front of her. She found herself looking up into a pair of deep brown eyes.

“Your employer’s estate?”  He looked nonplussed. “The Sinclair estate?”

“Yes, as it happens.”  She tried to push past him but the man was immovable, a broad-shouldered rock in her path.

“Pardon me, sir,” she said, hoping that she wasn’t addressing some high-in-the-instep lord. “But I really must be on my way.”

Almost before she knew he had moved, he plucked her portmanteau from her hands. She found herself lifted up and deposited, as if she was no more than baggage herself, sidesaddle on the stallion.

“Hang on,” said the man.

“Sir!” she said, “I must insist that you release me this instant.”   Helène looked down, thinking to jump, but the ground seemed to be a very great distance beneath her feet. She hesitated.

“It would be much easier if you could sit astride,” said the man. He swung himself up to sit behind her. “This business of putting both feet on the same side of the horse is absurd.”

Helène turned to stare at him. “Monsieur,” she said. “I assure you, I do not wish to be on this monster of an animal in any position at all. Now, if you will please assist me–”

“Don’t be a little fool. You’ll freeze before you reach Luton, and, as it happens, I’m going there anyway. Now sit still.” 

He clamped an arm around Helène and, as she started to object, uttered a soft clucking sound to the stallion. The horse sprang forward immediately into a smooth trot and Helène swallowed her protest. Now what?  The man’s forearm was like an iron vise around her middle, and she seemed to be in contact with more of his body than she really ought to be. Even riding sidesaddle she was nestled snugly against the man’s thighs, her back held firmly against his warm chest.

“Sir, I must protest–”

“I don’t suppose we could continue this conversation at some later time?” said the man. “Alcibiades and I have had a long day, and idiotish young women weren’t part of our plans.”

“Oh!  But–”

“Hush,” said the man, without emotion. “Be glad you’ll not be found a month from now, frozen in a drift of snow.”

There was no reply to that. The arrangement was undoubtedly most improper, but Helène couldn’t summon the energy to complain any further. She supposed that she had once been as dewy-eyed and innocent as any young miss, but the last year in London had left her with few girlish fantasies. And who was there left to care anymore, whether it was proper or not?

It actually feels rather good, Helène decided, releasing her breath in a drawn-out sigh. Warm. If he really is going to Luton Court then so much the better. If he isn’t...

She decided not to think about that possibility. The man somehow inspired trust, despite his abrupt manner. Helène stole a glance at his face and discovered that he was looking down at her with a peculiar, rather intent expression, which quickly gave way to a half-smile.

Warm brown eyes–

Helène held his gaze for a moment and tried not to blush.

“I can’t imagine that even Lady Sinclair is hiring French-speaking scullery maids these days,” the man said. He had apparently decided that some conversation could be tolerated. “So you would be... ”

“The new governess.”

“Ah. The governess.”

“And you are–?” asked Helène.

“A house guest.”

 After this meager exchange, nothing further was said. The stallion trotted on, his stride fluid and steady, as the twilight became night and a light snowfall began. She watched the flakes descend, dusting the horse’s mane and glinting like bits of silver fire in the moonlight. Any sound from the surrounding woods was muffled and heavy in the snowfall. Soon the horse and its rider seemed the extent of Helène’s world, everything else unreal. Despite the renewed gnawings of hunger she felt comfortable and... and safe.

 

Papa. Papa, wake up.

I’ve brought the doctor. Papa–

 

Helène’s head came up with a jerk and she realized she had dozed off. Good heavens, she thought, sitting up a little straighter. I hope I wasn’t asleep for long. The road had narrowed, and the muddy ruts were smoothed over with a good layer of gravel. A regular planting of trees lined the sides–columnar beech from the look of it, although in the fading moonlight of a winter’s evening she couldn’t be sure. It must be very pretty here in the summer, thought Helène, muzzily. I wonder what the gardens are like at Luton Court. Will there be any statues?  She thought of a statue she had seen once of the Greek Apollo–quite shockingly naked–in another garden, another place. Strange to think of a man’s body as beautiful. Helène’s eyes began to close again. His arms are so strong...

Wake up, she told herself, straightening again and taking a deep breath. Wake up. You don’t want this... person to think you are the type of woman who falls asleep in the arms of any stranger she happens to meet. Indeed not.

Mayhap we are poor, her father had told her, more than once, but the Phillips have always been respectable.

A bit of wishful thinking, perhaps, these days.

Their silent journey continued, the horse’s stride never faltering, the man seeming to take no notice of her at all. Although she was content for the most part to be ignored, Helène began to contemplate the appearance she would soon present to the marquess and marchioness, and she decided to risk voicing one complaint. She turned to look up into a strong, craggy face. The man raised his eyebrows.

Faint heart ne’er won fair maiden, Helène could hear her father saying. ’Twas not the most logical adage for her current situation, but it would have to do. She took a deep breath.

“Your animal has destroyed my portmanteau,” she told the man, her voice firm. “I’m sure my things are ruined.”

“Your clothing?”  His voice sounded skeptical.

“Yes, my clothing!”

“Clothing of the sort that you are wearing now?”

Helène narrowed her eyes. Was the man short of wit?  “What other kind of clothing would you suppose?” she asked him.

Mademoiselle, I must say that if the contents of your bag are similar to the costume you are wearing at present, it can hardly be much of a loss.” 

The tone of his voice betrayed amusement, but Helène was in no mood to be teased. Well!  she fumed. This was the outside of enough. Run down in the middle of a public road, accosted, her baggage ruined–and now insulted. Helène’s temper, never under the best of control, flared, and she tossed her head at him.

“Sir, I will thank you to put me down at once!”

“Certainly.”

A twitch on the reins, the horse stopped–and Helène found herself lifted to the ground.

“Good evening to you, mademoiselle, it was a pleasure to have been of some service.”

Her mouth agape, she stared at the rider in speechless fury as he rode off at a smart trot, and without a glance behind. He was out of sight around a curve in the road before she realized he still had her portmanteau.

“Oh!  Of all the despicable, odious, pig-headed–!”   She stomped after him, only to discover–as she rounded the curve herself–that Luton Court stood in front of her, lights burning from every window, and the front entrance not fifty yards away.

* * * *

Surely Harrison has arrived with the luggage by now, thought Lord Quentin, anticipating the pleasures of a hot bath and fresh clothing. He dismounted wearily from Alcibiades and tossed the reins to the waiting groom. The stallion snorted and stomped but Charles ignored him. He was gazing back in the direction from which he had come, watching, through the heavy snowfall, for a small figure to appear.

“Will you be wantin’ this... item, milord?” said the man, and Charles turned to see the governess’s portmanteau in his hands. The groom looked bemused, and Lord Quentin could only imagine what he thought of the torn and muddy bag.

“Yes–well, no.”  Charles was about to tell him to give it to the housekeeper with directions to hold it for the new governess, who would be arriving very shortly. But it had been a long, cold day, and he was tired, and he doubted if he could summon coherent instructions for the portmanteau.

“Oh, just give it here,” he said to the man. Charles dropped the bag on the steps, where it landed with a muddy squelch. The chit ought to see it there, he thought. And it would avoid any awkward explanations to Mrs. Tiggs.

“Very good, milord,” said the groom, carefully paying no further attention to the bag. He led Alcibiades away and Charles took one last look down the Sinclair’s long front drive. Ah, yes. There she was now. He turned and bounded up the staircase to the house.

* * * *

By the time Helène reached the steps of Sinclair Court she was as cold as before and much angrier. Left without help or transportation–twice!–by the high-and-mighty Sinclairs and now their high-and-mighty houseguest!  Pah!  Helène conveniently chose to forget that the rider had obviously known she was only yards away from Luton Court when he let her down. The Quality!  They were anything but, in her mind.

She trudged up the steps, thinking dark thoughts about gentlemen on horseback, and rapped smartly on an enormous double door. To her surprise, it swung back at once, and an imposing white-haired man stepped out, staring down his nose as if he had detected a noxious odor.

“Kitchen help applies to Mrs. Tiggs,” said the man, pointing somewhere off to her left. He started to close the door.

Tired as she was, Helène stood her ground. “I am Helène Phillips, the governess,” she told the butler. “And you are–?”   She almost laughed at the man’s reaction to that little piece of impudence. For a moment he looked too flustered to speak.

“Ah, yes,” he said finally, recovering. “Miss... Phillips.”  He intoned the words as if her name was painful to his throat. “Come this way please. I assume your luggage follows you?”

Her luggage. Blast and damn, thought Helène. The man had said he was a house guest of the Sinclairs, but she’d seen no sign of her portmanteau. What could she tell the butler?   Pardon me, but one of your guests rode off with my bag?  She murmured a vague agreement, hoping that the missing item would soon appear. The butler, who offered nothing more in the way of conversation, was already walking off at a brisk pace, and Helène had some difficulty scrambling to catch up.

What is wrong with me? she wondered. I feel so weak.    

They made their silent way through an enormous entrance hall, complete with potted palms twice her height and bust after bust of English literary figures. There was Marlowe, and Edmund Spenser... Goodness, what a disagreeable expression on his face. Helène was only half aware that she had stopped to look at the poet, and when she glanced around the butler was nearly out of sight. She hurried after him. The entrance hall seemed to stretch on forever. Her legs felt leaden, and twice she stumbled over marble that was polished smooth as glass.

Finally, just as Helène thought she could walk no further, they came to a grand staircase, also of marble and adorned with wrought iron balusters. The butler started up without a glance back. Helène followed him, her heart pounding, each step swimming before her eyes in a sea of exhaustion. Halfway up the staircase she paused to catch her breath.

“Come along, Miss Phillips,” commanded the butler.

“Yes–”

A long gallery, well-lit by candles and richly carpeted, greeted her at the top of the staircase. Under less trying circumstances the carpet might have impressed Helène with its plush elegance, but it was no easier to walk on than the marble had been. The butler, now yards ahead,  had stopped before a set of double doors. This, to Helène’s relief, was their destination.

The butler knocked, loudly, and a petulant voice responded with a complaint that Helène did not catch. They entered the perfumed and dimly lit room, and Helène saw a woman lying on a velvet chaise lounge in front of the fireplace, clasping a compress to her forehead.

“Your ladyship,” said the butler.

“Who is this, Telford?” asked the lady, glancing at Helène with a moue of distaste. “I don’t interview the scullery girls, you silly man. Take her to Mrs. Tiggs.”

“Miss Phillips, milady,” said the butler. “The governess.”  He turned on his heel and walked out. The woman looked up at her in surprise. She was a small woman and very pretty, Helène supposed, if you happened to be partial to soft brown hair and a pouting, rosebud mouth. The marchioness–for Helène couldn’t see how this woman could be anybody other than Lady Sinclair–sat up and frowned. She gave a sigh of disgust.

“I am Helène Phillips, ma’am,” said  Helène meekly, common sense prevailing over her irritation, at least for the moment.

“Such a headache, you have no idea,” said Lady Sinclair, lying back on the chaise with another sigh. “Well, this is all very inconvenient. You were to come today, you say?  I don’t remember any such thing.”

“Lady Sinclair, I’m sure you must have received my letter–”

“And what in heaven’s name are you wearing?” added the woman, glancing again in Helène’s direction and sniffing audibly. “This is quite, quite unacceptable. You must change into decent clothing at once. What will people say?   Why on earth we must have a new governess only weeks before Christmas I will never understand, and I’m really much too busy to be bothered–”

She continued in that vein for some time, and Helène heard her out in silence, wondering what she might be able to do about her clothing. She possessed a rose sarcanet that was marginally more fashionable than the brown wool, but it was hardly winter wear. And this was assuming she found her portmanteau, and assuming her clothing hadn’t been trampled into rags under the hooves of that brute stallion.

“Oh, never mind,” said the woman, with another martyred sigh. “Mrs. Tiggs can sort you out.”

“The children–?”

“Go and ask Mrs. Tiggs. I’m sure Alice and Peter are around somewhere.”

Lady Sinclair closed her eyes and waved Helène away. Helène stood there for a moment, debating whether this was the appropriate time to discuss the terms of her service with the Sinclair family.

“ ’Tis best to begin as you mean to go on,” her father had often told her, one of the few pieces of good advice he had had to give. If this was the marchioness’s usual attitude toward her employees, Helène doubted that her own temper would survive unnoticed for long.

But you’ve never been a governess before, she reminded herself. Perhaps this is how they are always treated.

She stood for a few more moments, wavering, then turned and left the room. The woman did not glance up and Helène shut the door behind her with just a tiny bit more force than necessary. What now?  The long upstairs corridor seemed to stretch on forever, punctuated with one closed door after another, and the butler was nowhere in sight.

What an odd house this was. Helène, deciding she was going to have to find the redoubtable Mrs. Tiggs on her own, started to retrace her steps.

“I trust you found your luggage,” came a newly familiar voice.

She whirled around to see the man from that afternoon standing behind her, his eyebrows cocked in question. Helène  resisted the impulse to step back and catch her breath. It was the first time she had seen him out of his riding cape, and although he was only somewhat above medium height, he was powerful in build. Broad shoulders, muscular thighs tautly encased in fine breechcloth–

“Mmm. My luggage?” said Helène.

His thighs are really none of your business, she reminded herself. She concentrated for a moment on his face. The man was not handsome in a conventional way. His nose was long and had a slight crook to it, as if it had been broken, and his face was... it was very . . .

Rugged, Helène decided. His clothing was of the finest quality, but the man didn’t really look like a fashionable London gentleman. He looked less tame. His thick brown hair was of medium length and arranged carelessly, with several locks falling over his forehead. She could find no fault with his eyes, however. They were a deep brown and–

Helène blinked. She had been staring, she was sure of it. How mortifying. Was the man speaking to her?

“I beg your pardon?”

“Yes–did you find your portmanteau?  I left it on the front steps.”

“The front steps!”

“You couldn’t possibly have missed seeing it.”  The man shrugged. “Well, never mind–it  will turn up eventually. The thing is hardly likely to be stolen.”

She was dirty, and exhausted, and suddenly very annoyed.

“Well, I did miss seeing it,” Helène told him. “Apparently I was lucky to even be allowed to set foot on the sainted front steps, and my chances of finding anyone to help me find a place to sleep in this house, let alone find my poor, trampled portmanteau–”

Helène stopped to catch her breath. She had lost her temper again, she thought miserably. The second time today.

The man shrugged again. “As you say. But would you have preferred explaining to Mrs. Tiggs how I ended up with the thing?”

Mrs. Tiggs again.

“I would have preferred that you hadn’t taken it in the first place!”

Taken it–”

“Lord Quentin!” interrupted a high, breathy voice from the doorway.

Helène turned around to see the marchioness standing with arms outstretched. Lady Sinclair advanced toward the man and flung her arms around his neck.

So he is a lord, was Helène’s first thought.

“Oh, Charles,” cooed Lady Sinclair, “tell me you’ve come to stay. I’ve been so dreadfully lonely.”  Helène could hardly avoid noticing that her ladyship’s bosom, only half covered by the thin material of her dressing gown, was now pressed closely against the man’s chest. She  wondered if it was accepted practice for the ladies of the ton to walk about en déshabillé. Her own father–

“Hello, Celia,” the man said, and Helène could have sworn she saw a flicker of disgust on his face. The lady, undeterred, continued her enthusiastic embrace, and if it hadn’t been for that brief flash of expression Helène would have concluded that they were lovers. She was turning to leave–it was high time to find Mrs. Tiggs–when she heard the man’s voice.

“Celia, perhaps you could introduce me to your new governess. I believe she is in some need of assistance.”

“Oh, Charles, simply look at the pathetic creature!” said Lady Sinclair, waving her hands vaguely in Helène’s direction. “I can’t imagine why Jonathan hired such a girl, her reference was quite inadequate. I’ve half a mind to turn her out this instant, she’s dressed abominably, Charles, it’s a disgrace to the household. You have no idea what I endure here, absolutely no idea–”

Helène didn’t hear the rest. She stood rooted to the carpet, a strange buzzing in her ears, and wondered if this is what it felt like to faint. Ridiculous. She had never fainted before.

I just need something to eat, thought Helène. I need to find Mrs. Tiggs. She tried to take a step but the hallway contracted and skewed sideways around her. A figured rose carpet... plush, soft...

The buzzing grew louder. She heard an exclamation of annoyance, somewhere in the far distance, and then even the carpet disappeared.

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