Cotillion, p.14
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       Cotillion, p.14

           Georgette Heyer
 

  ‘Well!’ said Meg. ‘Kitty, who in the world are they? How do you come to know them?’

  ‘But I don’t!’ Kitty replied. ‘I fell into conversation with Miss Broughty, but it was the merest nothing!’

  ‘Good God, I thought they must be friends of yours! Odious, pushing woman! I wish I had given her a set-down! Depend upon it, if I see her again she will claim me as a friend of long-standing! I can’t conceive how Lady Batterstown comes to have such a vulgar cousin, and I am positive she never introduced her to me.’

  ‘Oh, dear, I am very sorry if I have got you into a scrape!’ Kitty said penitently. ‘But I felt so much pity for Miss Broughty—I had been watching her, you know, thinking how beautiful she was, and that horrid woman spoke to her in such a way, and she looked frightened, and unhappy! And then I could see she was so much mortified by her mother’s manners that I could not but assure her that I should be happy to meet her again. Meg, did you ever behold a lovelier girl? She was like a fairy princess!’

  ‘I suppose she was very pretty,’ acknowledged Meg. ‘If her hair is naturally that colour, which Mrs Broughty’s is not!’

  Kitty could not allow the colour of Miss Broughty’s hair to be called in question, and was about to defend it when the assistant behind the counter providentially intervened, desiring to be told Meg’s pleasure. The Broughtys were forgotten in the more absorbing business of deciding between a figured and a checked muslin.

  Both ladies were considerably fatigued by the time they reached Berkeley Square, but there were so many parcels and bandboxes piled on the seat before them that it was to be supposed that their labours had been successful. The footman carried them all into the house; and if Skelton, the austere butler, was surprised at his mistress’s returning to her home with bandboxes bearing the name of a far from modish shop on their lids he was much too well-trained to betray it.

  The Buckhaven mansion was a large one, and furnished with a mixture of old and new taste, Meg having been unable, so far, to persuade her lord to replace all the antiquated chairs and tables which her predecessors had acquired. She conducted Kitty at once to a comfortable bedchamber, where a fire burned brightly in a modern grate, and a sofa, drawn up before it, invited repose. Someone had unpacked Kitty’s trunk, and had laid out her dressing-gown. Meg recommended her to lie down upon the sofa for an hour, begged her to ring the bell if she desired anything to be brought to her, and tripped away to rest on her bed, in accordance, she told Kitty, with her doctor’s advice.

  Remembering that she was in a delicate situation, Kitty hoped very much that the day’s shopping had not dangerously exhausted her. She herself was quite tired out, and had no sooner leaned her head back against the sofa-cushions than she fell asleep. She awoke to a room lit only by the glow from the fire, and started up, wondering for how long she had been asleep. A knock on the door was followed by the cautious entrance of her hostess, who exclaimed in the voice of one by no means exhausted: ‘Oh, you have not rung for candles! Were you asleep? Did I wake you? I beg your pardon, but pray come to my dressing-room, Kitty! Mallow is there, and we have been looking out some things which I never wear, and perhaps you might like! You won’t be offended? We shall be sisters, you know, and how stupid to stand upon ceremony! Do come!’

  Kitty could only thank her, and be glad that there was not light enough in the room for Meg to perceive her blushes. Almost she wished that the Standens had repulsed her, rather than have sunk her so deep in conscious guilt by their kindness. But the complications attaching to a belated confession were too numerous to be faced; lingering only long enough to allow her cheeks to cool, she followed Meg down one pair of stairs to her dressing-room. And here she found so many elegant things laid out for her inspection that she could scarcely be blamed for forgetting that she was an impostor. Meg’s dresser, a middle-aged woman who had for many years been employed in the Standen family, knew all about Mr Penicuik, and so saw nothing remarkable, or worthy of her contempt, in Miss Charing’s straitened circumstances. A little to Meg’s surprise, she had thrown herself heart and soul into the task of deciding which of her mistress’s gowns, and hats, and shawls could best be spared from her overflowing wardrobe. The modish Lady Buckhaven was not to know that her dresser, deep in Lady Legerwood’s confidence, was at her wits’ end to know how to restrain her dashing but inexperienced employer from appearing in public in garments which, however fashionable they might be, were quite unsuited to her fair prettiness. One glance at Miss Charing was enough to assure her that the greens and the ambers and the rich reds which Lady Buckhaven had so recklessly bought would admirably become this dark damsel. In her anxiety to be rid of garments the wearing of which by Meg would surely draw down upon her dresser’s head reproaches from Lady Legerwood, she even offered to make such slight alterations as might be necessary to adapt them to Miss Charing’s fuller figure. When Miss Charing shrank from accepting an opulent evening-cloak of cherry-red velvet, ruched and braided, and lined with satin, she contrived to draw her a little aside, and to whisper in her ear: ‘Take it, miss! My lady—Lady Legerwood, I mean!—will be so very much obliged to you! Miss Margaret—Lady Buckhaven, I should say!—should never wear cherry!’

  Kitty, who had a very fair eye for colour, was obliged to acknowledge the justice of this. In the end, she returned to her own chamber, to dress for dinner, the dazed possessor of a costly evening cloak, a bronze-green half-dress, an amber robe of satin and lace, a round-dress of lilac cambric, a bunch of curled ostrich plumes, dyed gold, and several scarves, reticules, and tippets.

  On the following day, Meg’s own hairdresser came to Berkeley Square, and, much hindered by the conflicting instructions of Lady Buckhaven and Miss Mallow, achieved a style for the hapless Miss Charing which succeeded in satisfying all parties. Miss Charing, staring wide-eyed into the mirror, saw reflected therein a stranger: a beautiful brunette, whose dusky curls, twisted into a knot on the top of her head, were allowed, at the sides, to fall on either side of her face in carefully careless ringlets. Meg being engaged with a party of friends, the rest of the day was spent by Miss Charing in judicious shopping, under the ægis of Miss Mallow. A large hole was dug into the fifty-pound bill handed to her by Freddy, but she felt that the money had been well-spent, and was able to present herself that evening in Meg’s drawing-room complete to a shade in the bronze-green robe bestowed upon her by her hostess, slippers of Denmark satin on her feet, a reticule of embroidered silk dangling from one wrist, Lady Legerwood’s handsome shawl draped negligently over her elbows, and the whole set off by the topaz set which, with a short necklet of pearls, were the only trinkets she had inherited from her French mother. Mr Penicuik, at the last moment, had disclosed the existence of these gauds, and had bestowed them upon her, bidding her to take care not to lose them. She had shown them to Meg that very morning, with the result that when her betrothed arrived in Berkeley Square to dine with the two ladies he brought with him a neat package from Jeffrey’s, jeweller to his Royal Highness the Prince Regent, which, when opened, revealed a very pretty pair of pearl earrings.

  (‘If you were wondering what to give Kitty as an engagement present, Freddy, I can tell you what she chiefly needs!’ had said Meg, encountering her brother in Bond Street, and unwittingly putting him in mind of his obligations.)

  ‘Oh, Freddy!’ gasped Miss Charing, gazing in mingled dismay and delight at these treasures. ‘Oh, no, no, no!’

  ‘Kitty, how absurd you are!’ Meg exclaimed, much entertained. ‘As though Freddy would not give you a present to commemorate your betrothal! It is such a pity that the circumstance of your not yet announcing it should make it ineligible for him to give you a ring! What do you mean to choose for her, Freddy? Diamonds, I suppose.’

  ‘You must not! Indeed you must not!’ Kitty said earnestly, her countenance becomingly flushed.

  ‘No, really, Kit!’ protested Mr Standen, equally embarrassed. ‘The veriest trumpery! Assure
you!’

  He then turned to his sister, revolted by her suggestion that he was so lacking in taste as to choose an insipid diamond for a lady who should clearly be decked in rubies or emeralds. By the time the rival merits of these two stones had been argued out, Skelton had announced that dinner awaited her ladyship, and Kitty seized the opportunity afforded by Meg’s leading the way to the dining-room to whisper agitatedly into Freddy’s ear: ‘When it is at an end I shall give them back to you!’

  ‘Good God, no!’ Freddy said, shocked. ‘They ain’t heirlooms, Kit! Sort of things anyone might give you!’

  She was unable to accept this, but there was no time to say more: they had reached the dining-room, and Meg, as she took her seat at the table, was explaining that she had invited no guests because she believed that the engaged couple would prefer to be alone.

  ‘Eh?’ said Freddy. ‘Oh! Just so! Got something to say, now I come to think of it. Important.’

  He was naturally pressed to continue, but he only shook his head, looking so portentous that Kitty was alarmed, imagining various disasters, from a recall to Arnside to the loss of that precious roll of bills. However, when they went back to the drawing-room, Freddy explained himself, saying apologetically: ‘No sense in puffing off the business to the servants. Looked in at Almack’s last night. Put me in mind of it. Can you dance, Kit?’

  ‘Only country-dances,’ Kitty replied anxiously. ‘Fish taught me the steps, but she does not know the waltz or the quadrille, of course.’

  Freddy nodded at his sister. ‘Caper-merchant,’ he said. ‘Thought as much!’

  ‘Do you mean that she must hire a dancing-master?’ demanded Meg. ‘Well, I think it is a great piece of nonsense, besides being a waste of time, for you know how much engaged M. Dupont always is at this season! Depend upon it, Kitty would be obliged to wait for days and days before he could find the time to come to her. Why don’t you teach her yourself? For this I will say, Freddy!—however stupid you may be, you are by far the best dancer in London! And that, let me tell you, is what Lady Jersey says!’

  ‘Does she, though?’ said Freddy, moved by this tribute. ‘By Jove!’ Doubt shook him. ‘Yes, but couldn’t teach Kit! Dash it all!’

  ‘Oh, Freddy, please do!’ begged Kitty, by no means anxious to spend any of her fast-dwindling substance on the services of a dancing-master.

  ‘He shall do so!’ declared Meg. ‘He shall teach you the waltz this very evening!’

  The unfortunate Mr Standen protested in vain: he was no match for two determined females. Chairs and tables were thrust against the wall; and when, in a last, despairing effort to save himself, he pleaded that although he could do the thing he was dashed if he could explain it, Meg jumped up from the piano-stool, and very obligingly said that she would do it with him, so that Kitty might learn by observation. As Kitty could hardly be expected to watch the steps and to play the piano at the same time, Meg provided the necessary music by humming one of her favourite waltz-airs, a performance which so lacerated the sensitive Mr Standen’s nerves that he very soon declared that anything was better than to have such a devilish noise in his ear, and offered to give his betrothed a turn. Since Kitty had a natural aptitude, and Meg was able to come to the rescue when his verbal instructions became too incoherent to do more than bewilder his pupil, the lesson was very successful. In a remarkably short space of time, Freddy decided that she was sufficiently advanced to put his tuition into practice. He bade his sister play one of his favourite airs, took Miss Charing in his arms, and made her dance round the room with him. She was at first so much embarrassed that she made a great many false steps, for to stand so close to a man, and to feel his arm about her waist, positively constraining her to move in whatever direction he wished, was an unprecedented and rather alarming experience, and one, moreover, which she knew would have been violently disapproved of by her guardian and governess. She kept her eyes shyly lowered, and could not help blushing a little. But as there was nothing in the least amorous in Freddy’s light, firm clasp, and such remarks as he addressed to her were of an admonitory nature, she soon recovered her countenance, began to move with much more assurance, and even, presently, dared to raise her eyes.

  ‘You know what?’ Freddy said, when at last he released her. ‘You ain’t a bad dancer at all, Kit. Dashed if I don’t think you’ll shine ’em all down!’

  ‘Oh!’ cried Kitty, a little out of breath, but triumphant. ‘Do you think so indeed, Freddy?’

  ‘Shouldn’t be at all surprised. What I mean is, when you’ve rid yourself of this devilish trick you have of treading on me every now and then.’

  ‘You are a great deal too severe, Freddy!’ said Meg, beginning to put the chairs back into their places. ‘She dances very gracefully! I am sure I should never have guessed she had never waltzed before!’

  Freddy shook his head. ‘Would if you’d been dancing with her,’ he said simply.

  ‘Well!’ exclaimed Meg. ‘What an odious thing to say! And you have been engaged to her only for three days!’

  ‘Keep forgetting!’ murmured Freddy, with a conscience-stricken glance at Miss Charing.

  Thinking that she could not have heard aright, Meg was just about to ask him to repeat his remark when the door was opened, and Skelton ushered Mr Westruther into the room.

  Nine

  Lady Buckhaven greeted this late-coming visitor with unaffected pleasure. Mr Westruther, raising her hand to his lips, said: ‘My dear Meg, I can’t express to you my delight at finding you at home—or my surprise! No sudden indisposition, I do trust!’ He released her hand, and glanced, in his mocking way, at her companions.

  It would have been too much to have said that he did not recognize Miss Charing in her elegant apparel, but she had the satisfaction of knowing that he was certainly surprised. His brows went up; he stood looking keenly at her for several moments before he spoke; and then he crossed the room towards her, and said laughingly: ‘Accept my sincerest felicitations, Kitty! Upon my word, I had almost made my most formal bow to my cousin’s unknown, fashionable guest! What a fortunate dog you are, Freddy! Really, I can’t feel that I congratulated you sufficiently!’

  Freddy, who had regarded his entrance with marked disfavour, said: ‘Well, it don’t signify. Devilish queer times you choose to go paying visits!’

  ‘Don’t I?’ agreed Mr Westruther, possessing himself of Kitty’s hands, and holding them so that he could look her up and down. ‘Charming, Kitty! You are as fine as fivepence! Were you guided by Freddy’s exquisite taste, or is this new touch all of your own devising?’

  This bantering tone filled Miss Charing with a strong desire to slap him. Repressing so ungenteel an impulse, she replied affably: ‘Do you think I look well? I am so glad, but you should rather compliment Meg than Freddy.’

  ‘Then I do compliment Meg,’ he said, letting go her hands, and turning towards Lady Buckhaven. ‘Here you are, my little gamester! You came off all right.’

  She took the slim packet he held out to her, and gave a delighted crow of triumph. ‘I knew it must win! I am very much obliged to you! Have I ruined you quite?’

  ‘Oh, run me off my legs! I must be rolled-up, or put a pistol to my head: I can’t decide which fate to choose.’

  She laughed. ‘How sorry I am! Freddy, only fancy! There was a horse running today called Mandarin! And Jack laid me odds it would not win! So absurd of him, for how could it help but win, with my dear Buckhaven on his way to China?’

  Freddy, who was inclined to view her sudden interest in the Turf with disapprobation, was just about to state his opinion in a few simple, brotherly words when he was interrupted by Miss Charing, who said, with a great deal of vivacity: ‘Oh, Jack, I must show you what Freddy has given me! See! Are they not pretty? The very ornaments above all others I so much wished for!’

  Mr Westruther put up his glass to look at the earrings. Nothing could
have been blander than the tone he used to express his admiration of the trinkets, but Kitty was quick to perceive a flicker of surprise in his eyes, and was satisfied that whatever suspicions he might nourish she had at least puzzled him.

  The tea-tray was brought in just then. Meg pressed Mr Westruther to stay long enough to drink a cup with them, and Mr Westruther, at his most provoking, said: ‘Do you think I dare? I have the oddest feeling that Freddy wishes me to go away. I had no notion of his being so strict a brother! My dear coz, I do trust that the queer times I choose for paying visits have not misled you into thinking that my intentions are dishonourable?’

  ‘Good gracious!’ cried Miss Charing, much diverted. ‘As though he could be so stupid! I am persuaded you might visit at any hour you pleased, and the only thing anyone would say is, Oh, it is only Jack!’

  She then wished that she had held her tongue, for Mr Westruther smiled approvingly at her, and said: ‘Well done, Kitty!’

  He then proceeded, to her discomfiture, to enquire when he must set about the task of buying his wedding-gift, and, when she told him that the date of the ceremony was not yet decided, said: ‘Ah, exactly so! I was forgetting! The engagement is not immediately to be announced, is it? I wish you will tell me why you are keeping it a secret! I have been racking my brain to hit upon the reason, without the smallest success!’

  Mr Standen, somewhat to Kitty’s surprise, came unexpectedly to the rescue. ‘Measles,’ he said. ‘M’mother means to give a dress-party for Kit. Can’t do it now. Better to wait a few weeks.’

  ‘Of course!’ said Mr Westruther. ‘How could I be so bird-witted? And where do you mean to spend the honeymoon?’

  ‘We—we have not made up our minds!’ said Kitty.

  ‘Yes, we have,’ interpolated Freddy. ‘Going to Paris.’ He thought for a moment, and added: ‘Kit wishes to meet her French relations.’

 
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