Cotillion, p.13
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       Cotillion, p.13

           Georgette Heyer
 

  She was borne off by Meg in a stylish barouche, and, having miscalled it a landaulet, learned her first lesson. A barouche, Meg told her, was of the first stare of fashion; but a landaulet, for inscrutable reasons, was a dowdy vehicle, only fit for old ladies to ride in. ‘I will remember,’ she said. ‘I shall have a great deal to learn, because I have never been to London in my life. But I mean to apply myself!’

  ‘Oh, you will be on the town in less than no time!’ said Meg, adding naïvely: ‘Particularly if you are to stay with me, because I’m all the crack!’

  ‘I can see that you are,’ said Kitty, in all sincerity.

  Eight

  It was as well for Mr Standen that Miss Charing had been bred in the habits of the strictest economy, for his sister, entering wholeheartedly into his amiable plot to provide Kitty with a much more expensive wardrobe than had been contemplated by Mr Penicuik, would have had no scruple in recommending the purchase of at least half-a-dozen of the ravishing gowns displayed by Mme Fanchon. It had not occurred to her that Miss Charing might demand to be told the prices of the dresses she looked at, for it had already been agreed between them that the dressmakers and the milliners should be instructed to send in their bills to Lady Buckhaven, whom they knew so well; and nothing was more unlikely than that Mme Fanchon would of her own volition mention anything so ungenteel as a price. But from the moment of alighting from the barouche in Burton Street, and entering the portals of one of London’s most renowned modistes, Kitty was suspicious. Ushered into a showroom carpeted with Aubusson and furnished with gilded, spindle-legged chairs, and a multitude of tall mirrors, she felt unhappily certain that any gown exhibited in such opulent surroundings would be quite above her touch. She tried to whisper as much in Meg’s ear, but Meg only laughed, and said: ‘Fiddle!’ Then the great Mme Fanchon herself appeared, all smiles and curtsies, and, having been informed that she was to have the privilege of supplying her ladyship’s cousin with several dresses, suitable for a young lady of quality about to come-out into the world, at once went into conference with my lady, while Kitty stared with round, envious eyes at a grand ball-dress of lace over white satin, which was displayed upon a stand at one end of the room. She had not fully assimilated its glories when Meg rejoined her, but Meg, observing the direction of her gaze, said: ‘Not lace! When you are married you may wear such a dress, but Mama would never allow me to do so when I came-out.’

  ‘Oh, no! I was only thinking how beautiful it is! I am sure it must be most dreadfully dear!’

  ‘Well, yes!’ assented Meg, with a tiny giggle. She had purchased just such a grande-toilette herself, not three months ago, and it had taken all the cajolery of which she was capable to reconcile the most indulgent husband alive to a staggering demand from Mme Fanchon for three hundred pounds. ‘Lace is a little dear! But girls who are just out, you know, always wear muslins, and cambrics, with perhaps one or two silken gowns for important occasions. Now, don’t get into a pucker, Kitty! We shall contrive famously, I promise you! I thought it best to tell Fanchon you were my cousin, since you don’t mean to advertise your engagement quite at once. And—you won’t take a pet?—I said that you had lived very retired, with a strict and old-fashioned guardian, because I could see that she was staring to see such an outmoded bonnet and pelisse. She perfectly understands—and it is quite true! I don’t mean that I wouldn’t have said it had it not been true, for I hope I am not such a zany, but it gives one the most agreeable feeling to know that one really has spoken the truth!’

  There was no time for more; Mme Fanchon, despatching two underlings with certain instructions, came up to the ladies, and at once began to discuss with Meg such mysteries as French bead edges, worked muslin jaconet, spider-gauze, ribbon-braces, and Zephyr cloaks. And then Miss Charing tumbled headlong into the world of make-believe which had for so long beguiled her leisure hours; for the underlings came back carrying dresses—dresses for every occasion, figured, embroidered, flounced, and braided; adorned with blond lace, or knots of ribbon; some embellished with spangles, some with pearl rosettes, some with silver fringes. They were the garments Miss Charing had dreamed of, and never thought to wear; and it was small wonder that she released her clutch on the workaday world. The season had not begun, and no other clients had invaded the showroom: Lady Buckhaven decreed that the gowns should be tried on immediately. Kitty, standing before a mirror, first in an elegant walking-dress of amber crape, then in a demi-toilette of mulled muslin, next in a satin ball-dress, with a pelerine of fluted velvet cast over her shoulders, saw herself transformed, and lost her head.

  But she came to earth too soon for Lady Buckhaven. Just as her ladyship was saying: ‘Then we are decided, are we not, love, on the sea-green, and the Berlin silk with the floss trimming? And the Merino pelisse, with the round cape?’ she turned her head towards Madame, and said in a voice of strong resolution: ‘What, if you please, is the price of this dress I have on?’

  Madame, unaware of Lady Buckhaven’s frantic attempt to catch her eye, told her. The make-believe world collapsed in ruins; one last glance Kitty allowed herself at the mirrored vision of a modish young lady in rose-pink gauze; then she turned away, and said, with a quivering lip: ‘I am afraid it is too dear.’

  Madame, looking towards Lady Buckhaven too late, realized that she had vexed one of her more valued patronesses, read the message in those dagger-darting blue eyes, and exerted herself to make a recovery. Gently turning Miss Charing to face the mirror again, she pointed out to her the many excellencies of the gown, and in a spate of volubility contrived to say that it was more economical to purchase one expensive dress than three cheaper ones, that the sight of mademoiselle in such a toilette must infallibly strike the beholder like a coup de foudre, that she believed she had confused its price with that of the cerulean blue satin which had not become mademoiselle, and, finally, that to oblige so good a customer as miladi she would make a reduction.

  Kitty allowed herself to be persuaded. Though she must rigorously curtail further expenditure, she could not bring herself to spare one person at least this clap of thunder. If she went in rags for the rest of her days, Mr Westruther should see this lovely vision in rose-pink, and know what he had allowed to slip through his careless, cruel fingers.

  And after that it seemed as though perhaps she could afford to buy the sea-green walking-dress, and the Merino pelisse to wear over it—neither as expensive as she had feared they must be. But she retained enough sanity to shake her head when it was pointed out to her that she would bitterly regret it if she neglected to buy a half-dress of Italian crape.

  ‘Kitty,’ said Lady Buckhaven, struck by a brilliant idea, ‘if you do not mean to buy it, I will, because it is just what will suit me! Only I thought perhaps I ought not, because only last week I purchased one in bronze-green, which Mama says is a colour I should never wear, so of course I shan’t, because no one knows better than Mama what truly becomes one. But I have just had the most famous notion! I will give you the bronze-green, and buy this one for myself, and that will make everything right!’

  In this very reasonable way the problem was solved to everyone’s satisfaction; Madame promised to deliver the band-boxes in Berkeley Square that very day; and the ladies, each feeling that she had practised a piece of clever economy, sallied forth to visit a series of milliners and haberdashers. Kitty, who had been thinking deeply, astonished her hostess by saying that if she might be put in the way of visiting a linen-draper she would buy such materials as she liked, and contrive to make herself gowns in imitation of what she had seen at Fanchon’s. Like any other young lady of gentle breeding, Meg could embroider prettily, and had even been known to hem a seam, but the idea of making gowns for herself had never so much as occurred to her. When she learned that Kitty had been in the habit of doing so for years she began to think that life at Arnside must be bleak indeed, and in a rush of warm-heartedness said: ‘Well, you shan’t do so in my house, you poo
r thing! Mallow—my dresser, you know!—shall find a sewing-woman to do it for you. The cost will be trifling—I know, because Mama employs one to make up dresses for Caroline and Fanny. Good gracious, she would be the very person! I will dash off a note to her directly we return home! Should you like to drive immediately to a linen-draper’s, or are you tired? There is Layton and Shear’s, or Newton’s, in Leicester Square, which I believe is tolerably good. Or stay! Let us go to Grafton House! Emily Calderbeck told me that you would scarcely credit the things one may purchase there for the merest song! Poor creature, she is forced to embrace the most shocking expediencies, for Calderbeck, you know, is run quite off his legs! And the miserable thing is that he sets it down to Emily’s want of management and economy, when all the town knows he has lost thousands at play! I must own that I am glad Buckhaven is not a gamester. Only think how uncomfortable it would be never to know whether you were rich, or ruined! I tell Jack that if ever he is married I shall pity his wife—just rallying him, you know!’

  ‘Is Jack a gamester?’ asked Kitty. ‘I—I didn’t know! That is—Freddy said so, but—’

  ‘Oh, yes! I don’t mean to say that he is for ever in some horrid hell, like Calderbeck, but he plays at Watier’s, where the stakes are shockingly high; and he bets on all the races—in fact, he is what Freddy calls a Go amongst the Goers! Shall we tell my coachman to drive to Grafton House?’

  ‘Oh, yes, please—if you should not dislike it!’ Kitty waited until the order had been given, and then said, in a disinterested voice: ‘Is Jack in London? I have not set eyes on him this age!’

  ‘Of course, you must know him better than you know any of us,’ said Meg. ‘He is for ever visiting my great-uncle, isn’t he? Do you like him? I hope you may, for he is often in Berkeley Square. Only pray don’t say so to Mama! She would not like it above half, because he has such a shocking reputation! It is all nonsense, of course, and Buckhaven makes no objection. Naturally one knows where to draw the line, and, besides, it is perfectly proper to have one’s cousin to visit one!’

  Miss Charing was still digesting this when the barouche drew up outside Grafton House.

  It had been one of Meg’s schoolday amusements to visit the Pantheon Bazaar, under the careful chaperonage of her governess, and to spend her weekly pin-money in that astonishing mart; but ladies of high fashion did not commonly do their shopping at Grafton House, and she had never before entered its portals. She was inclined to be suspicious of an emporium patronized by such unfortunates as poor Emily Calderbeck, but after a very few minutes spent in looking at the wares for sale in the building she succumbed to the eternal feminine passion for Bargains, and became quite as enthusiastic as Kitty over silk stockings at only twelve shillings the pair, muslins at three shillings and sixpence the yard, and really elegant bugle trimming at the ridiculously low figure of two shillings and fourpence.

  The only drawback to the shop was its popularity: it was crowded, customers being obliged to wait at the various counters for as much, sometimes, as twenty minutes before receiving attention. An overheard interchange between two women desirous of buying black sarsnet informed Lady Buckhaven and Miss Charing that more knowledgeable persons made a point of visiting Grafton House before breakfast; by eleven o’clock, it appeared, the emporium was always as full as it could hold.

  ‘Shall we do that?’ Meg whispered. ‘Only I don’t think I could! Perhaps we had better stay, now we are here! My dear, look! Irish poplin, at six shillings the yard! Not that I should want poplin, but still—!’

  It was while they were awaiting their turn to be served at one of the counters that Kitty’s eyes alighted on the most beautiful girl she had ever seen. She could not help staring, for such gleaming golden ringlets, such deep blue eyes, so exquisite a complexion seemed to belong rather to a fairytale than to a stuffy and overcrowded shop. The child—for she did not look to be much more—was very elegantly dressed, in a swansdown-trimmed bonnet and pelisse of blue velvet that almost exactly matched her big eyes. From the wide, upstanding brim of her bonnet to the heels of her velvet half-boots all was perfection, except her expression. This was disconsolate, even a little scared. A stylishly gowned woman, who was turning over a pile of muslins on the counter, spoke to her, and, when she did not hear, spoke again, sharply, causing her to give a nervous start.

  ‘For Heaven’s sake, Olivia, can you not pay attention?’ the elder woman said, in a scolding tone. ‘How many times am I to tell you that these dawdling and languid airs of yours will not do? I am sure I may wear myself out, buying dresses for you, for anything you care, or any thanks I may get for it! Nothing is so disagreeable in a girl as that stupid sort of indifference, and so you will find!’

  The girl flushed, and murmured something Kitty could not hear. She bent over the muslins, but apparently the choice she would have made did not suit her companion’s notions, for Kitty heard the sharp voice say: ‘Nonsense—quite unsuitable! You have not the least notion! You put me out of all patience with you!’

  The girl stepped back again, and, making room for a stout matron to pass, brushed against Kitty. She looked round, begging pardon, in a shy, childish voice, and Kitty said at once: ‘It is dreadfully crowded, isn’t it? Is it always so?’

  ‘Oh, yes!’ sighed the girl. ‘And Bedford House is worse!’

  ‘I haven’t been there. This is my first visit to London. Do you live here?’

  ‘Yes—no! I mean, we used not to do so. I am just out, you see, so Mama has brought me to town.’

  ‘Why, it is the same—almost—in my own case! I have been shopping all the morning, and my head is in a whirl. It is all so big, and there is so much to see!’

  ‘Do you dislike shopping?’ asked the girl sympathetically.

  ‘Gracious, no! I never enjoyed myself so much in my life, I think! Do you dislike it?’

  ‘I liked it at first—having pretty dresses, and hats—but it is so tiring, standing still for hours, while they pin things round me! And being scolded for fidgeting, or tearing a flounce, or letting my best hat be spoilt in the rain.’

  The older woman, hearing her voice, had turned her head, and was keenly scrutinizing Kitty, in an appraising way which made Kitty feel that the cost of her clothing was being assessed to a halfpenny. She summoned the girl back to her side, but just at that moment Meg, who had been inspecting some Indian muslin handkerchiefs, looked round, and said: ‘My dear Kitty, do you think these pretty? Only three shillings and sixpence each! I have a very good mind to buy some.’

  The stylish woman stared very hard at her for an instant, and then, suddenly smiling with the utmost affability, spoke to the fair beauty in quite another voice, saying: ‘I did not perceive that you were engaged, my love! I only wished you to say whether you like this sprig-muslin.’ She then bestowed the smile upon Kitty, and added archly: ‘Has my daughter been telling you that she thinks shopping a dead bore? Such a naughty puss as she is, aren’t you, pet?’

  She glanced at Meg, as she spoke. Meg was looking enquiringly from Olivia to Kitty, and was considerably taken-aback to find herself suddenly addressed.

  ‘Good gracious! Lady Buckhaven, is it not? How do you do? I dare not hope that your ladyship recollects!—Mrs Broughty—I had the honour of meeting you at—lord, I shall forget my own name next, I daresay! I fancy you are acquainted with my cousin, Lady Batterstown. Dear Albinia! the sweetest creature! Your ladyship must allow me to present my daughter!’

  This was uttered with such a gush of friendliness that Meg, not quite so well-experienced in the ways of the world as she thought herself, was rather overwhelmed. She was certainly acquainted with Lady Batterstown, but she felt sure that she had never before encountered Mrs Broughty. But although she felt that Lady Legerwood, easy-going though she was, would unhesitatingly have depressed Mrs Broughty’s pretensions, she found herself to be quite unable to do so. It seemed, moreover, that Kitty was acquainted with Mis
s Broughty: she had certainly been chatting to her, and it appeared that she regarded her with approval. Mrs Broughty, voluble, and wonderfully assured, was talking of Kitty as though she knew her well, dexterously coupling her with Olivia, rallying both girls on their lack of interest in humdrum shopping, and saying that they must not be allowed to chatter to one another now, but might perhaps meet one day soon. She contrived to tell Meg that she was staying in Hans Crescent—quite out of the world, dear Lady Buckhaven would say!—and even to extort from Meg, stunned by this ruthless eloquence, the expression of a hope that they might become better acquainted. By this time her parcel had been made up, and she was obliged to move away from the counter. While she was taking leave of Meg, at much greater length than the circumstances warranted, Olivia, who had been standing all the time with downcast eyes, and heightened colour, glanced fleetingly into Kitty’s face, and said in a low, unhappy voice: ‘Pray, forgive—! I mean—I daresay we shan’t meet again! I should not wish—’

  Kitty interrupted impulsively: ‘Indeed, I hope we may!’

  Miss Broughty clasped her hand gratefully. ‘Thank you! You are very good! I wish very much—You see, I have not any friends in London! Not female friends! Oh, Mama is waiting for me! I must go! Goodbye!—so happy to—!’

  The sentence was left in mid-air; a tiny curtsy was dropped to Meg; and Olivia followed her mother towards the door.

 
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