Cotillion, p.2
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       Cotillion, p.2

           Georgette Heyer
 

  These tragic accents had their effect upon Lord Dolphinton. He turned his apprehensive eyes towards Hugh. Hugh smiled at him, in a reassuring way, and said in a colourless voice: ‘Precisely so, sir!’

  Mr Penicuik, finding his audience to be unresponsive, abandoned his pathetic manner, and said with his customary tartness: ‘Not that I shed many tears when my sisters died, for I didn’t! I will say this for your grandmother, you two!—She didn’t trouble me much! But Dolphinton’s grandmother—she was my sister Cornelia, and the stupidest female—well, never mind that! Rosie was the best of ’em. Damme, I liked Rosie, and I like Jack! Spit and image of her! I don’t know why the rascal ain’t here tonight!’ This recollection brought the querulous note back into his voice. He sat in silence for a moment or two, brooding over his favourite great-nephew’s defection. Biddenden directed a look of long-suffering at his brother, but Hugh sat with his eyes on Mr Penicuik’s face, courteously waiting for him to resume his discourse. ‘Well, it don’t signify!’ Mr Penicuik said snappishly. ‘What I’m going to say is this: there’s no reason why I shouldn’t leave my money where I choose! You’ve none of you got a ha’porth of claim to it, so don’t think it! At the same time, I was never one to forget my own kith and kin. No one can say I haven’t done my duty by the family. Why, when I think of the times I’ve let you all come down here—nasty, destructive boys you were, too!—besides giving Dolphinton’s mother, who’s no niece of mine, a lot of advice she’d have done well to have listened to, when my nevvy Dolphinton died—well, there it is! I’ve got a feeling for my own blood there’s no explaining. George has it too: it’s the only thing I like about you, George. So it seemed to me that my money ought to go to one of you. At the same time, there’s Kitty, and I’m not going to deny that I’d like her to have it, and if I hadn’t a sense of what’s due to the family I’d leave it to her, and make no more ado about it!’ He glanced from Biddenden to Hugh, and gave a sudden cackle of mirth. ‘I daresay you’ve often asked yourselves if she wasn’t my daughter, hey? Well, she ain’t! No relation of mine at all. She was poor Tom Charing’s child, all right and tight, whatever you may have suspected. She’s the last of the Charings, more’s the pity. Tom and I were lads together, but his father left him pretty well in the basket, and mine left me plump enough in the pocket. Tom died before Kitty was out of leading-strings, and there weren’t any Charings left, beyond a couple of sour old cousins, so I adopted the girl. Nothing havey-cavey about the business at all, and no reason why she shouldn’t marry into any family she chooses. So I’ve settled it that one of you shall have her, and my fortune into the bargain.’

  ‘I must say, sir, it is an odd, whimsical notion!’ Biddenden remarked. ‘And one which—’

  ‘Whimsical!’ exclaimed Hugh, in tones of disgust. ‘I had rather have called it outrageous!’

  ‘Very well, my lad, if that’s what you think, don’t offer for her!’ retorted Mr Penicuik.

  ‘Pray be silent, Hugh! May I enquire, sir, whether the whole of your estate is to be bequeathed to the—er—fortunate suitor?’

  ‘To Kitty, once she safely married. I don’t hold with cutting up property.’

  ‘And in the event of no offer’s being received?’

  Mr Penicuik gave vent to another of his cackles. ‘I ain’t afraid of that!’

  Hugh rose to his feet, and stood towering above his great-uncle. ‘I will not be silenced! The whole of this scheme must be repugnant to any female of delicacy. Pray, which of us do you mean to compel her to marry?’

  ‘Don’t stand there, giving me a crick in my neck!’ said Mr Penicuik. ‘I shan’t compel her to marry any of you. I don’t say I wouldn’t rather she had one than another, naming no names, but I’m not an unreasonable man, and I’m willing to let her have her pick amongst you. Plenty of you to choose from!’

  ‘But what if she should refuse, sir?’ asked Biddenden anxiously.

  ‘Then I’ll leave my money to the Foundling Hospital, or some such thing!’ replied Mr Penicuik. ‘She won’t be such a zany!’

  ‘Am I correct in assuming, sir, that Kitty has no fortune of her own?’ demanded Hugh.

  ‘Not a farthing piece,’ said Mr Penicuik cheerfully.

  Hugh’s eyes flashed. ‘And you say you do not compel her! I marvel at you, sir! I may say that I am profoundly shocked! Without fortune, what hope can any female, circumstanced as Kitty is, have of achieving a respectable alliance?’

  ‘She can’t have any, of course,’ said Mr Penicuik becoming momently more affable as his great-nephew’s choler rose.

  ‘No, indeed!’ exclaimed Lord Biddenden, almost shuddering at the thought of marriage with a portionless female. ‘Really, Hugh, you go too far! I don’t know where you learned your fantastic notions! One would say there had never been a marriage arranged before, yet you must be well aware that in our circle such things are always done! Your own sisters—’

  ‘I have yet to learn that my sisters were forced into marriages that were distasteful to them!’

  Mr Penicuik opened his snuff-box again. ‘What makes you think marriage to one of you would be distasteful to the girl?’ he asked blandly. ‘Maybe she don’t fancy you, but that ain’t to say there isn’t one amongst you she might not be glad to pick. She don’t know any other men, so there’s bound to be.’ Inhaling too large a pinch of Nut Brown, he sneezed violently several times. When he had recovered from this seizure, he said: ‘Going to be open with you! Everyone knows the Charings: good stock, fit to couple with any family! The thing is, Kitty has French blood in her.’ This information was well known to the company, but he disclosed it with all the air of one making a damaging admission. ‘Evron was the name. Never knew much about the family myself. They were émigrés, but not noble—at least, if they were it’s more than Tom ever told me. They won’t trouble you: I saw to that! Fellow who said he was Kitty’s uncle came here once—oh, years ago! Brought his sons with him: couple of scrubby schoolboys, they were. I soon sent him to the right about: a very neat article I thought him! No use his trying to bamboozle me, and so I told him! A sponge, that’s what he was, if he wasn’t worse. However, to the best of my belief he took himself off to France again. I never heard any more of him, at all events. But Désirée—Kitty’s mother—’ He broke off, and his gaze, which had been flickering from Biddenden’s face to the Reverend Hugh’s, transferred itself to the smouldering logs in the grate. He did not finish his sentence, but said, after a pause: ‘Pretty little thing, Kitty, but she’ll never be the equal of her mother. Favours poor Tom too much. Got something of her mother’s look: I see it now and then: but Dés—Mrs Charing—Well, never mind! That ain’t to the purpose.’ He stretched out his hand towards the bell-rope, and pulled it vigorously. ‘I’ll have her in,’ he said. ‘But, mind, now! I ain’t compelling her to choose any of you three—well, she can’t choose you, George, because you’re married already! I don’t know what brings you here: I never invited you!’

  Lord Dolphinton, pleased to hear his words thus confirmed, turned his eyes towards his elder cousin, and remarked succinctly: ‘Told you so!’

  Two

  A few minutes later, Miss Catherine Charing entered the room, accompanied by an elderly lady whose sparse gray locks had been crimped into ringlets which dangled on either side of an amiable if not comely countenance. The absence of a cap proclaimed her spinsterhood; she wore a high-gown of an unbecoming shade of puce; and carried a reticule in one bony hand. Mr Penicuik no sooner saw her than he exclaimed with unnecessary violence: ‘Not you, woman, not you! Think I haven’t had a bellyful of your face today? Go away! Go away!’

  The elderly lady made a faint clucking noise, but although she looked frightened she did not seem to be surprised by this unconventional greeting. She said: ‘Oh, Mr Penicuik! At such a time—such a delicate occasion—!’

  ‘Kitty!’ interrupted Mr Penicuik. ‘Throw that Fish out of the room!’

/>   The elderly lady uttered a protesting shriek; Miss Charing, however, pushed her gently but inexorably over the threshold, saying: ‘I told you how it would be!’ She then closed the door, favoured the company with a wide-eyed and thoughtful gaze, and advanced into the middle of the room.

  ‘Good girl!’ approved Mr Penicuik. ‘Sit down!’

  ‘Take this chair!’ urged Lord Biddenden.

  ‘You will be comfortable here, my dear Kitty,’ said the Reverend Hugh, indicating the chair from which he had risen at her entrance.

  Not to be outdone, Lord Dolphinton gulped, and said: ‘Take mine! Not comfortable, but very happy to—Pray take it!’

  Miss Charing bestowed a small, prim smile upon her suitors, and sat down on a straight chair by the table, and folded her hands in her lap.

  Miss Charing was a rather diminutive brunette. She had a neat figure, very pretty hands and feet, and a countenance which owed much to a pair of large, dark eyes. Their expression was one of candour and of innocence, and she had a habit of fixing them earnestly (and sometimes disconcertingly) upon the face of any interlocutor. She had a slightly retroussé nose, a short upper-lip, a decided chin, and a profusion of dusky curls, which were dressed in the demure style which found favour in the eyes of her guardian and her governess. She wore a round robe of green cambric, with a high waist and long sleeves, and one narrow flounce. A small gold locket was suspended round her throat by a ribbon. It was her only ornament. If Lord Biddenden, a man of fashionable inclinations, felt that a few trinkets and a more modish gown would have improved her, it was plain that his brother surveyed her modest appearance with approbation.

  ‘Well, Kitty,’ said Mr Penicuik, ‘I’ve told these three what my intentions are, and now they may speak for themselves. Not Biddenden, of course: I don’t mean him, though I don’t doubt he’d speak fast enough if he could. What brought him here I don’t know!’

  ‘I expect,’ said Miss Charing, considering his lordship, ‘he came to bring Hugh up to the mark.’

  ‘Really, Kitty! Upon my word!’ ejaculated Biddenden, visibly discomposed. ‘It is time you learned to mend your tongue!’

  Miss Charing looked surprised, and directed an enquiring glance at Hugh. He said, with grave kindness: ‘George means that such expressions as up to the mark are improper when uttered by a female, cousin.’

  ‘Ho!’ said Mr Penicuik. ‘So that’s what he meant, is it? Well, well! Then I’ll thank him to keep his nose out of what don’t concern him! What’s more, I won’t have you teaching the girl to be mealy-mouthed! Not while she lives under my roof! I have quite enough of that from that Fish!’

  ‘I must observe, sir, that my cousin would be perhaps well-advised to model her conversation rather upon Miss Fishguard’s example than upon that set her by—I conjecture—Jack,’ returned Hugh, pointedly enunciating each syllable of the governess’s name.

  ‘Gammon!’ said Mr Penicuik rudely. ‘It ain’t Jack’s example she follows! It’s mine! I knew how it would be: I shan’t get a wink of sleep tonight! Damme, I never knew a fellow turn my bile as you do, Hugh, with that starched face of yours, and your prosy ways! If I hadn’t made up my mind to it that—Never mind that! I did make it up, and I won’t go back on my word! Never have, never will! However, there’s no reason for Kitty to be in a hurry to decide which of you she’ll have, and if she takes my advice she’ll wait and see whether—Not that either of ’em deserves she should, and if they think they can keep me dangling on their whims they will very soon discover their mistake!’

  With these suddenly venomous words Mr Penicuik once more tugged at the bell-rope, and with such violence that it was not surprising that not only the butler, but his valet as well, appeared in the Saloon before the echo of the clapper had died away. Mr Penicuik announced his determination to retire to the library, adding that he had had enough of his relations for one day, but would see them again upon the morrow, unless—as was more than probable—he was then too ill to see anyone but the doctor. ‘Not that it’ll do me any good to see him!’ he said. He uttered a sharp yelp as he was hoisted out of his chair, cursed his valet, and cast a malevolent look at Lord Biddenden. ‘And if I were to sleep all night, and wake up without a twinge of this damned gout, I still wouldn’t want to see you, George!’ he declared.

  Lord Biddenden waited until he had been supported out of the room before observing, with a significant look: ‘It is not difficult to understand what has cast him into this ill-humour, of course!’

  ‘Didn’t invite you,’ said Dolphinton, showing his understanding.

  ‘Oh, hold your tongue!’ exclaimed Biddenden, quite exasperated. ‘My uncle must be in his dotage! A more ill-managed business—’

  ‘Ill-managed indeed,’ said Hugh. ‘There has been a want of delicacy which must be excessively disagreeable, not to you, but to our cousin here!’

  ‘She is not our cousin!’

  ‘My dear brother, we have thought of her as our cousin ever since she was in her cradle.’

  ‘Yes, I know we have,’ said Biddenden, ‘but you heard what my uncle said! She’s not!’

  Hugh said arctically: ‘That was not what I meant. I am happy to be able to say that such a suspicion has never crossed my mind.’

  ‘Coming it rather too strong, Hugh,’ said Biddenden, with a short laugh.

  ‘You forget your company!’ said Hugh, allowing annoyance to lend an edge to his voice.

  Recollecting it, Lord Biddenden reddened, and cast an apologetic look at Kitty. ‘I beg your pardon! But this business has so much provoked me—! Done in such a scrambling way—! However, I do not mean to put you to the blush, and I am sure we have all of us been in such habits of easy intercourse that there is no reason why you should feel the least degree of mortification!’

  ‘Oh, no, I don’t!’ Kitty assured him. ‘In fact, it is a thing I have wondered about very often, only Hugh told me he was persuaded it could be no such thing. Which, I must own, I was very glad of.’

  ‘Well, upon my word!’ said Lord Biddenden, torn between diversion and disapproval. ‘Hugh told you, did he? So much for your fine talking, my dear brother! No suspicion, indeed! I wonder you will be for ever trying to humbug us all! You should not be talking of such things to Hugh, my dear Kitty, but I shall say nothing further on that head! No doubt you have a comfortable understanding with him, and I am sure I am glad to know that this is so!’

  ‘Well, I knew it would be useless to ask poor Fish,’ said Kitty naïvely, ‘so I spoke to Hugh, because he is a clergyman. Has Uncle Matthew told you that I am not his daughter?’

  She turned her eyes towards Hugh as she spoke, and he replied, a little repressively: ‘You are the daughter of the late Thomas Charing, Kitty, and of his wife, a French lady.’

  ‘Oh, I knew my mother was French!’ said Kitty. ‘I remember when my Uncle Armand brought my French cousins to see us. Their names were Camille and André, and Camille mended my doll for me, which no one else was able to do, after Claud said she was an aristo, and cut her head off.’ Miss Charing’s eyes darkened with memory; she added in a brooding tone: ‘For which I shall never forgive him!’

  This speech did not seem to augur well for the absent Captain Rattray’s chances of winning an heiress. Lord Biddenden said fretfully: ‘My dear Kitty, that must have been years ago!’

  ‘Yes, but I have not forgotten, and I shall always be grateful to my cousin Camille.’

  ‘Ridiculous!’

  Hugh interposed, saying: ‘It is you who are ridiculous, George. However, I must agree with you that my uncle has shown a lack of delicacy in this affair which renders the present situation distasteful to any person of refinement. I am persuaded that it would be more agreeable to our cousin if you and Dolphinton were to withdraw into some other apartment.’

  ‘I daresay it would be more agreeable to you,’ retorted his lordship, ‘and I should be very
glad to oblige you, but if you imagine that I am going to bed at seven o’clock you are the more mistaken!’

  ‘There is not the smallest necessity for you to go to bed. Really, George—!’

  ‘Oh, yes, there is!’ said his lordship, with considerable acerbity. ‘No doubt my uncle has a very comfortable fire built up in the library, but if there is one in any other room in the house I have yet to discover it!’

  ‘Well, there is one in his bedchamber, of course,’ said Kitty. ‘And, if you did not object to sitting with Fish, there is a fire in the schoolroom. Only I daresay you would not like it very much.’

  ‘No, I should not!’

  ‘And poor Dolph wouldn’t like it either. Besides, he wants to say something,’ pursued Kitty, who had been observing with an indulgent eye the spasmodic opening and shutting of Lord Dolphinton’s large mouth.

  ‘Well, Foster, what is it?’ said Hugh encouragingly.

 
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