Cotillion, p.10
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       Cotillion, p.10

           Georgette Heyer
 

  He found his mama reclining upon a sofa in her dressing-room, a shawl spread over her feet, and a handkerchief redolent of aromatic vinegar clutched in one hand. She had removed her cap, and her carefully curled locks were in considerable disorder.

  Lady Legerwood, the only surviving offspring of Mr Penicuik’s third sister, Charlotte, was a fair woman, with more style than beauty, her large blue eyes being a little too prominent, and her chin showing a tendency to recede. The punctual presentation to her lord of six hopeful children had slightly impaired her figure, but she was generally considered to be a pretty woman; and, since she was as good-natured as she was foolish, she was almost universally liked. She was uncritically fond of her husband, doted upon her children, and was much addicted to what her uncle would unquestionably have termed extravagant frivolity.

  The unexpected sight of her eldest son appeared to exercise a strange influence over her. She reared herself up on the sofa, her eyes dilating, and, throwing out a repelling hand, ejaculated: ‘Freddy! Have you had them?’

  ‘Eh?’ said Freddy, startled. ‘Had what, ma’am?’

  ‘I cannot recall!’ declared his parent, pressing the hand to her heated brow. ‘Meg has not! I remember that, because when poor Charlie had them we sent her to stay with Grandmama, for it was at the very moment when I was about to present her, you know, and only think how dreadful it would have been! I have been racking my brains to try to recollect whether you have had them, not that it signifies, I daresay, for you don’t live here now, which is a thing I cannot like, for I am sure they cannot make you comfortable in those rooms of yours, only your papa would not let me say a word against it, and no doubt he knows what is best, only if they air the sheets properly it is more than I would bargain for! But heaven forbid, Freddy, that I should keep you tied to my apron-strings!’

  ‘Yes, but what’s amiss?’ demanded Freddy, dutifully bending over the sofa to kiss one scented cheek.

  Pausing only to clasp him to her bosom, and to return his salute with fervour, Lady Legerwood uttered fatally: ‘The measles!’

  ‘Oh! Had ’em at Eton,’ said Freddy.

  Lady Legerwood shed tears of thankfulness.

  ‘Who’s got ’em now?’ enquired Freddy, mildly interested.

  ‘All of them!’ replied her ladyship dramatically. ‘Fanny and Caroline, and poor, poor little Edmund! I am quite distracted, for although I don’t doubt Fanny and Caroline will speedily recover, Edmund is so full of them that I am in constant dread! I was up with him all the night, and am but now seizing a few moments upon my couch, as you see! You know how delicate Edmund has always been, my love!’

  There were many elder brothers who might have cavilled at this statement; and certainly the Honourable Charles Standen, at present at Oxford, would have had no hesitation in giving it as his opinion that Edmund had been pampered from his cradle; but Freddy was as kind-hearted and as uncritical as his mother, and he only said: ‘Poor little fellow!’

  Lady Legerwood squeezed his hand gratefully. ‘He will not suffer anyone but me to wait on him! I have been obliged to put-off every engagement. We ought to be at Uxbridge House at this very moment—but I don’t regret it, for I should think myself the most unnatural mother alive if I could go to parties when my beloved children were sick! But nothing could be more unfortunate, Freddy! You must know that Lord Amherst has taken Buckhaven off with him on this stupid Chinese mission, and now here is Old Lady Buckhaven—and one can scarcely blame her, for I am sure Meg is so shatterbrained she should not be left alone!—declaring your sister must stay with her in the country until Buckhaven returns! It may be a year, or even more, and no one need think I do not feel for Meg in this predicament. But how could I reconcile it with my conscience, Freddy, I ask you, to bring her into this house of infection, when I know she never had the measles! I do not scruple to tell you, dearest, that she is expecting an interesting event in the autumn. So sad to reflect that Buckhaven must needs be from home upon the occasion, but your dear papa says it is a great honour that Amherst should have chosen to take him! So you must not wonder at it that you find me almost prostrate. My Benjamin so ill, not to mention his dear little sisters, and my eldest daughter—indeed, my eldest-born, for never shall I forget my disappointment when I learned I had given birth to a female, not that your papa ever spoke a word of blame to me, and only eighteen months later you were born, my dearest, so all was right!—Well, as I say, my eldest daughter requiring me to save her from her mama-in-law—an excellent female, of course, but so straitlaced, Freddy, that one’s heart quite bleeds for poor Meg! And I cannot reconcile it with my conscience to uphold Meg in her determination to remain in Berkeley Square while Buckhaven is from home! If only she would consent to Cousin Amelia’s going to live with her! But she will not, and I must own, my dear son, that I should not care for it myself, for you know what Cousin Amelia is! Yet what else can I suggest?’

  Freddy made no attempt to answer this, but, fastening on to the most incomprehensible part of his mother’s somewhat involved speech, demanded: ‘Why should Buck go to China? Silly thing to do!’

  ‘Oh, Freddy, if I have said so once I have said it a hundred times! But Papa tells Meg she should be gratified to see her husband singled out for the mission. Do not ask me what it is about, for I am sure I cannot tell you! It is something to do with the injustice of those horrid mandarins to our traders, but for my part I think Buckhaven would have done better to have stayed at home. Why, he and poor Meg have not been married a year! But tell me, dearest, where have you been this age? You said you were going into Leicestershire, but I quite thought you told me you would be in town again before this.’

  ‘Very good sport,’ explained Freddy. ‘As a matter of fact, did come back, two days ago. Meant to wait on you, ma’am, but the thing was, found I had to go to Arnside.’

  ‘Arnside!’ exclaimed Lady Legerwood. ‘Never tell me Uncle Matthew is dead?’

  ‘Oh, no, he ain’t dead!’ said Freddy. ‘Pity, if you ask me! Sent for all of us.’

  ‘All of you?’

  ‘Great-nephews. At least, Dolph would have it he didn’t send for George, and I daresay he was right. No reason why he should have. Claud couldn’t go, of course, and Jack didn’t choose to.’

  ‘Freddy, is my uncle making his Will at last?’ asked her ladyship eagerly.

  ‘That’s it. Ramshackle sort of business. Leaving his fortune to Kitty, provided she marries one of us.’

  ‘What?’

  ‘Thought you’d be surprised,’ nodded Freddy. ‘Poor girl didn’t want to marry Dolph—stands to reason she wouldn’t! Didn’t fancy Hugh either. I wouldn’t, myself. Prosy sort of a fellow! Long and the short of it is, ma’am, she accepted me!’

  His mother’s eyes started at him. ‘Freddy!’ she said faintly. ‘You offered for Kitty Charing?’

  Mr Standen perceived that his announcement was productive of more astonishment than delight, and blushed. ‘Thought you’d be pleased,’ he said. ‘Time I was getting married. Dash it, ma’am, told me so not a month ago!’

  ‘Yes, but—Oh, Freddy, I believe it is a take-in! How can you be so—? Now, tell me it is untrue!’ He shook his head, resolutely, adhering to his promise, made to Miss Charing, not to tell his parents any such thing. Lady Legerwood sank back against the sofa-pillows, and pressed the vinegar-soaked handkerchief to her brow. ‘Oh, good heavens! What can have possessed you? Surely you have never—Freddy, do not tell me you have offered for Kitty for the sake of Uncle Matthew’s fortune!’

  ‘No, I haven’t,’ replied Freddy. ‘It’s what everyone else will tell you, though. Bound to!’

  She stared at him. ‘But is it possible that you can have a tendre for the girl? I thought you had not been to Arnside above half-a-dozen times since you left school! How comes this about? I declare, you have set my poor head in such a whirl—! Heavens, what will your father say to this?’

/>   ‘No reason why he should object, ma’am. Daresay he’ll be glad of it. Very good sort of a girl, Kit: always liked her!’

  This lover-like encomium caused her ladyship to give a gasp. ‘“A very good sort of—” Freddy!’

  ‘Well, ain’t she?’ demanded Freddy. ‘Thought you was fond of her, ma’am? Often told me you pitied her, having to live cooped up with Uncle Matthew. Quite right! Never saw such an old curmudgeon in my life! What’s more, that Fish of hers seems queer in her attic to me. Shouldn’t wonder at it if between the pair of them they drove Kit into Bedlam. That’s why I brought her up to town with me.’

  Lady Legerwood sat up with a jerk. ‘You did what? Freddy, you haven’t brought her here?’

  ‘Thought you’d like to see her,’ said Freddy feebly. ‘Engaged to me—present her to the family—show her the sights! Besides, nowhere else I could take her!’

  Many thoughts jostled one another in Lady Legerwood’s bemused brain; she uttered the most immediate of them. ‘With measles in the house!’

  ‘It’s a pity about that,’ agreed Freddy. ‘May have had ’em, though. I’ll ask her.’

  ‘But it is impossible!’ she cried. ‘What in heaven’s name do you expect me to do with her?’

  ‘First thing to do is to buy her some clothes. Can’t have her going about like a dowd. Must see that, ma’am!’

  ‘I am to buy clothes for her?’ exclaimed her ladyship.

  ‘Help her to choose ’em,’ amended Freddy. ‘Won’t have to pay for ’em. Fact is, the old gentleman gave her a handsome sum for the purpose. Taking care of it for her. You tell me what the figure comes to, and I’ll sport the blunt.’

  ‘Uncle Matthew gave her a handsome sum?’ exclaimed his mother, momentarily diverted. ‘You don’t mean it!’

  ‘Surprised me too,’ murmured Freddy. ‘Surprised me when he said she might come to town for a month, as well.’

  ‘A month! No, no, Freddy, indeed I cannot have her here! I would not for the world behave shabbily towards your betrothed, even though I cannot like this engagement, for I had hoped to see you make a much better match, and, indeed, I—not that that signifies now! And you are not to be thinking that I do not like Kitty, for I am sure she is an excellent girl, and I should be very glad to show her any kindness in my power! But I do not mean to entertain until the children are well again, and as for devoting myself to Kitty at such a moment, it is not to be thought of ! Later, perhaps! She must return to Arnside for the present: I am persuaded she will understand how it is!’

  ‘Won’t do at all,’ said Freddy firmly. ‘Promised her she should spend a month in town. Can’t break my word to her. Cruel thing to do. Set her heart on coming to London.’

  ‘Oh, dear, what is to be done, then?’ sighed her ladyship, abandoning all attempt to grapple with the problem. ‘Where is she all this while?’

  ‘Left her in the Blue Saloon. Said I’d break the news to you. Took a notion into her head you might not like it, and went into a quake. Wouldn’t come upstairs with me.’

  ‘Well, I am sure I am not astonished at that! Poor child, I suppose she was so anxious to escape from the odious old man she was prepared to do anything to accomplish it! She must remain here for tonight, of course, and then we must consider what is best to be done. I will come down to her in a moment, tell her. And what your father will say when you break this news to him, Freddy, I dare not consider!’

  But in the event Freddy was spared the necessity of having to break the news to Lord Legerwood. While he was closeted with his mama, his lordship had walked into the Blue Saloon, to find it inhabited by a damsel in an old-fashioned bonnet and a drab pelisse, who turned an apprehensive and vaguely familiar face towards the opening door, and then rose to her feet, and dropped a shy curtsy. ‘How—how-do-you-do, sir?’ she said, with a valiant assumption of ease.

  ‘How-do-you-do?’ responded his lordship politely.

  ‘Perhaps,’ said Kitty, swallowing, ‘you don’t remember me, sir. I am Kitty Charing.’

  ‘Of course!’ he responded, coming forward, and shaking hands. ‘I thought I knew your face. But what a delightful surprise! Are you staying in London?’

  ‘Well—well—I do hope so!’ Kitty said, blushing vividly. ‘Only I am not expected, and perhaps it might not be quite convenient!’

  Lord Legerwood’s calm gray eyes took note of the blush; a twinkle came into them. ‘Can it be that you have come to stay with us?’ he suggested.

  She stood considerably in awe of him, for his cool, well-bred manners were quite unlike her guardian’s, and made him seem immeasurably superior. He had an air of decided fashion, too, and an occasionally satirical tongue. The twinkle, however, reassured her. She smiled confidingly up at him, and said: ‘Yes, that is it! Freddy said you would not object to it, only, for my part, I did think we should have asked you first!’

  ‘Freddy?’ he said interrogatively.

  She became a little confused. ‘Yes, sir. You see—Freddy brought me! He—he has gone to tell Lady Legerwood!’

  The sapient eye caused her blushes to rise again. ‘Indeed?’ said his lordship. ‘Has Freddy been visiting his great-uncle? Dear me! But what am I about, to be keeping you standing? Do, pray, sit down again, and tell me how all this comes about!’

  She obeyed the first part of this command (for such she felt it to be), but said: ‘I think, perhaps, Freddy ought to tell you, sir. In fact, I am quite sure he should!’

  He drew up another chair, and seated himself in it. ‘Really? I am persuaded I shall much prefer to be told it by you. I always find it so difficult to follow Freddy when he tries to explain anything to me.’

  ‘Yes, but it wouldn’t be the thing for me to tell you, sir!’ objected Kitty.

  ‘A delicate matter, I apprehend?’ She nodded. ‘In that case, I cannot too strongly recommend you not to entrust the task of explaining it to Freddy,’ he said.

  She drew a resolute breath. ‘Well, I must say it does seem hard that everything should fall on poor Freddy,’ she agreed. ‘The—the truth is, sir, that he has been so obliging as to—to offer for me!’

  His lordship sustained this with fortitude, but there was a slight pause before he said: ‘This is very sudden!’

  ‘I am afraid,’ said Miss Charing guiltily, ‘that it is a disagreeable surprise to you, sir!’

  ‘Not at all!’ he replied courteously. ‘I own to some slight feeling of surprise, but I assure you it is not disagreeable!’

  Much cheered, Kitty said gratefully: ‘Thank you! I did not think of it at first, but while I have been waiting here I began to think that you might dislike it excessively, and to wonder if perhaps—’

  ‘If perhaps—?’ he prompted, as she broke off.

  ‘I—we—should not have done it! Only—well, sir, it was all Uncle Matthew’s fault! He has made an odious scheme to leave me his whole fortune if I will marry one of his great-nephews, and he sent for them to come to Arnside, so that he could tell them of it, and I might choose the one I liked the best.’ She added: ‘And however unbecoming it is in me to appear critical of one who is my benefactor, I must say that I think it was a most improper arrangement!’

  ‘Most improper,’ he agreed. ‘But am I to understand that Mr Penicuik’s great-nephews all obeyed this peculiar summons?’

  ‘Jack did not,’ she replied. ‘And he knew why my uncle had sent for him, which makes me excessively glad to think that he had too much delicacy of mind to come upon such an errand!’

  ‘The reflection must be of comfort to all his friends,’ said Lord Legerwood rather dryly. ‘May I know if they were all aware why they were sent for?’

  ‘Dolph and Hugh seemed to know,’ she answered. ‘But Freddy had not the smallest suspicion of it. I daresay, you know, that if my uncle wrote in veiled terms he might not have understood what was intended.’

  ‘Mo
re than probable. But when the matter was made plain to him I collect that he was not backward in offering for your hand?’

  ‘No, no, you must not be thinking that he offered for me because of the fortune!’ Kitty said quickly. ‘I assure you, it is not the case at all! You must know that he—he had not previously supposed that his suit would be acceptable to Uncle Matthew!’

  Lord Legerwood looked at her for a moment; then his gaze dropped to the snuff-box he held in one hand. He flicked it open, took a delicate pinch of snuff, and said smoothly: ‘The—er—attachment between you is of long-standing, I apprehend?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Kitty, pleased to find him so quick-witted. ‘We—we have always felt a—a decided partiality for each other, sir. So when he found that Uncle Matthew had pledged himself to give me to whichever of them I chose he—he was emboldened to speak!’

  Lord Legerwood dusted his finger-tips with his handkerchief, and put away his snuff-box. ‘Really, a most romantic story,’ he remarked. ‘I must own I had not thought it of Freddy. How little one knows of one’s offspring after all!’

  She eyed him doubtfully, but was spared the necessity of answering him by the reappearance on the scene of her betrothed. Freddy came in with the news that his mother would in a few moments arrive to welcome her guest. He had prepared a glib speech assuring Kitty of Lady Legerwood’s pleasure in the visit, but under his father’s ironic gaze he faltered a little.

  ‘Ah, Frederick!’ said his lordship languidly. ‘I learn that I must offer you my felicitations.’

  ‘Oh—er—exactly so, sir!’ Freddy responded. ‘Thought you’d be pleased! Time I was getting married. Brought Kit up to town, you see. Felt you’d wish to become acquainted with her. Before we puff it off in the papers.’

  ‘Oh, is the engagement not to be announced?’ enquired his lordship, all polite interest.

  ‘Uncle Matthew does not wish it to be announced quite immediately, sir,’ said Kitty. ‘There—there are reasons why it will be more convenient to wait for a few weeks, but I cannot well enter into these!’

 
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