Cotillion, p.20
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       Cotillion, p.20

           Georgette Heyer
 

  Sustaining two set-downs from Miss Charing, who twice found excuses for refusing invitations to drive out with him in the curricle drawn by his famous chestnuts, Mr Westruther sent her, by the hand of his groom, a ravishing fan of ivory, pierced, gilded, and painted with delicate medallions by the hand of Angelica Kauffman. Accompanying this gift, was a letter so adroitly phrased that Kitty knew not how to refuse the fan. It was the betrothal-present, Mr Westruther wrote, of her oldest friend, who dared to subscribe himself by affection, if not by blood, her ever-loving cousin, Jack.

  ‘Well!’ exclaimed Meg, not quite pleased. ‘I am sure he has never given me anything one half as pretty! He must certainly have had a run of luck! The most expensive trifle, my dear Kitty!’

  Pressing her hands to her hot cheeks, Kitty said: ‘I must not accept such a valuable gift!’

  ‘Good gracious, why should you not? You can scarcely refuse it, my love! Quite unexceptionable, I assure you! “Your ever-loving cousin”—! Very prettily phrased, upon my word!’

  So when Mr Westruther renewed his invitation to his cousin-by-affection to drive with him to Richmond Park, to see the primroses there, bursting into pale flower under the shade of immemorial trees, it seemed to Miss Charing that she could only accept, with becoming pleasure. The luck favoured Mr Westruther; the appointed day was one of bright sunshine. It encouraged Miss Charing to wear a Villager-hat of satin straw, with flowers at one side, and an apple-green ribbon passed beneath her chin, and tied in a skittish bow under her ear; and to carry a frivolous parasol, bestowed upon her by Meg. Mr Westruther found himself thinking, as he handed her into his curricle, that her appearance was such as must satisfy the most exacting of men.

  It was his custom to drive abroad with a diminutive Tiger perched up behind him, but on this occasion he had dispensed with the services of this youth. He told Kitty, with the flicker of a smile, that such chaperonage could not be thought necessary for such near relations (by affection) as themselves. She agreed to it, but warily. Yet not the most querulous critic could have called in question Mr Westruther’s conduct from start to finish of this expedition. He was the big cousin who had enchanted her childish fancy; he might laugh at her, but he refrained from laughing at Freddy; if he never once referred to her engagement, at least he gave no sign of disbelieving it. Only at the end of an afternoon for which Kitty thanked him with real gratitude did he lower the mask for an instant. The laugh sprang to his eyes; he looked down into her face for a moment, lightly pinched her chin, and said, the words a caress: ‘Foolish, doubting, little Kitty! There, in with you, my child! I cannot leave my horses to go with you!’

  The colour rushed up under his careless fingers; she glanced fleetingly into his face, lowered her eyes again, and with a stammered: ‘Th-thank you! It was very agreeable!’ ran up the steps, and into the house. He drove away, very well satisfied; thinking, too, that the country cousin was unfurling new and charming petals.

  He let two days pass, and then called one morning in Berkeley Square to invite both ladies to go with him to Sadler’s Wells on the following evening, so that Kitty might see the great Grimaldi in a revival of his very successful pantomime, Mother Goose. Though Meg might cry out against so unsophisticated an entertainment, Mr Westruther knew Kitty well enough to be sure that she would revel in it. Had it been possible, he would unhesitatingly have taken her to Astley’s Amphitheatre, and would himself have derived a good deal of amusement, he thought, from watching her awe and delight at Grand Spectacles, and Equestrian Displays. But the Amphitheatre, like its rival, the Royal Circus, never opened until Easter Monday, by which time, Mr Westruther trusted, Kitty would have returned to Arnside.

  Meg’s butler, admitting him into the house, informed him that her ladyship had driven out, but that Miss Charing, though about to take the air with a friend, was in the Small Saloon. He then escorted Mr Westruther to this apartment, and, all unwitting, subjected him to a severe shock. ‘Mr Westruther!’ he announced, and went away, leaving Mr Westruther on the threshold, a little rigid, the lazy smile frozen on his lips.

  There were three people in the room. There was Kitty, in a mulberry bonnet and pelisse, engaged in working her fingers into a pair of new gloves; there was Freddy, standing with his back to the fire; and there was Miss Broughty, radiant in pale blue merino, with swansdown trimming, and a swansdown muff.

  It was only for an instant that Mr Westruther was shocked into immobility. Before Kitty, turning to greet him, had time to observe his stupefaction, he had recovered himself, and had moved forward, saying with perfect sangfroid: ‘I collect that I have not chosen my moment well: you are going out! Never mind! My errand is soon discharged.’

  ‘Yes, Miss Broughty is so kind as to give me her company,’ she replied, shaking hands with him. ‘We mean to walk in the Park, and see how the daffodils and the crocuses come on. Olivia, pray allow me to introduce Mr Westruther to you!’

  ‘Unnecessary,’ he said coolly, advancing towards Olivia, and holding out his hand. ‘I already have the honour of being acquainted with Miss Broughty. How do you do?’

  This announcement was productive of only the mildest surprise in Miss Charing; but when she glanced towards her friend she was astonished to see her face suffused with blushes. Miss Broughty looked up, and looked down, stammered something inaudible, and barely permitted Mr Westruther to touch her hand before tucking it away again in her muff. Such conduct, even in a girl unused to society, seemed strange. Kitty wondered if Jack could in some way have offended Olivia. She knew him to be occasionally arrogant; and had just decided that he must have wounded Olivia’s susceptibilities with some slighting look or remark, when she chanced to catch sight of Freddy. The elegant Mr Standen bore all the appearance of one who had been stuffed, his gaze being so glassy, and his face so totally devoid of expression, that one glance in his direction was enough to convince Kitty that she had stumbled upon a mystery he would have been very glad to have kept hidden from her. Only a short time earlier she would certainly have demanded an explanation, but her little stay in London had already taught her to command her tongue. Seeming not to notice Olivia’s confusion, she said: ‘And what is your errand, Jack?’

  It was soon disclosed; she could not answer for Meg’s willingness to go to Sadler’s Wells, but she said that for herself she would be all happiness to accept. She then shook hands with both gentlemen, unmistakeably dismissing them, and swept Olivia off for their proposed walk in the Park.

  Alone with Mr Standen, Mr Westruther said sweetly: ‘Would you care to explain to me, my very dear coz, how I come to find that charming ladybird on terms of intimacy with Kitty?’

  ‘Yes, I didn’t fancy you’d like it overmuch,’ replied Freddy. ‘Nothing to do with me. Don’t imagine I introduced her to Kit, do you?’

  ‘The notion, I own, had presented itself to me,’ said Mr Westruther.

  ‘Well, I didn’t,’ said Freddy. ‘Dashed bacon-brained notion to take into your cockloft! For one thing, not acquainted with the girl myself; for another, not the sort of girl I would introduce to Kit.’ He thought this over for a moment, and then said scrupulously; ‘What I mean is, won’t be, if she pays any heed to the lures you’ve been throwing out to her this age past! Looked to me as though she well might. Pretty little bit of muslin, but hen-witted.’

  ‘I thank you!’ Mr Westruther said sardonically. ‘If not to you, Freddy, to whom are my thanks due for this clever touch?’ He perceived that he had bewildered his cousin, and added impatiently: ‘Well? Who made Kitty known to the girl her perfidious cousin Jack has made the object of his attentions?’

  ‘Don’t think anyone did,’ replied Freddy. ‘Met her by chance. Know what I think? Good thing if you was to take a damper! Not engaged to Kit, coz!’

  Those very blue eyes glinted at him. ‘I might make the obvious retort, Freddy, but I won’t!’

  The two ladies in question, meanwhile, were treading
briskly down one of the paths in the Park, their hands tucked in their muffs, and their pelisses fastened tightly up to their throats, for although the sun shone, encouraging daffodils to burst from their sheaths, an east wind blew strongly.

  ‘Dear Miss Charing, if you knew the solace it is to me to be in your company!’ Olivia said. ‘I should not repine—I know that Mama has made many, many sacrifices to make this visit to the Metropolis possible, but, oh, I was happier by far at home, with my sisters!’

  Kitty was already aware of the existence of Amelia, and Jane, and Selina, and she uttered a murmur of sympathy. She was not of an age fully to comprehend the anxieties of a mother indifferently blessed with four daughters, but she understood from Olivia that these were acute. Dear Papa, it seemed, had not left his family in affluent circumstances; but he had certainly endowed them with good looks, a commodity in which they had been bred from earliest youth to trade to the best advantage. Only Jane, they feared, was bookish; and Amelia showed a dreadful tendency to freckles. Olivia, the loveliest was well as the eldest of the sisters, did not question that it was her duty to make a good match. She had come to London with that object; but whenever her maiden fancy had speculated on the good match it had always come to her in the guise of a young and handsome suitor, and never in that of an elderly roué. She had supposed too that Dear Papa’s grand relations in Brook Street would welcome her and Mama to their house: but here again reality had fallen sadly short of expectation. Repulsed by the Batterstowns, Mama had been obliged to accept the hospitality of her sister, living in Hans Crescent; and however good-natured Mrs Scorton might be, she had no entrée into the world of fashion, and was undeniably vulgar. Not for Miss Broughty the select gatherings at Almack’s, the ton parties, the box, when the season began, at the Italian Opera. Mama, skirmishing round the fringes of society, had achieved one or two genteel invitations for her daughter, but none of them led to the triumphs she had so confidently predicted. As for taking the town by storm, as the beautiful Gunning sisters had done, sixty-five years earlier, either times had changed, or there was some peculiar virtue attached to pairs. ‘But Amelia is not yet sixteen,’ Olivia explained seriously, ‘and the expense, besides, could not have been met.’

  It seemed to Kitty a pity that her new friend’s mind was set so irrevocably upon marriage, but her suggestion that Olivia might seek an eligible situation as a governess met with no favour at all. Olivia stared at her with dismay in her big eyes, and unequivocally stated her preference for death. Upon reflection, Kitty was obliged to own that she was scarcely fitted for such a post. Her intellect was not superior, and her education was scanty. She had great sweetness of temper, a biddable disposition, and sufficient refinement to shrink from the machinations of her Mama and her cheerful, loud-voiced cousins; but the more Kitty saw of her the less was she able to believe that that lovely exterior hid the slightest strength of character. She thought it surprising, too, that so beautiful a girl should have had no suitors at home for whom she appeared to have felt any partiality. Olivia explained that the neighbourhood was restricted. ‘I am sure no one could like Ned Bandy, and the Wrays, you know, are horribly vulgar. There was only Mr Sticklepath, and of course that would not do.’

  ‘He was not eligible?’ Kitty ventured to ask.

  ‘Oh, no! I daresay he has not twopence to rub together, poor man!’

  ‘But you liked him, perhaps?’

  ‘No, but he would have been very glad to have married me, even though I have no fortune, because his housekeeper is lately dead, and he does not know how to go on, and I can dress meat neatly and cheaply, besides being able to sew, and to iron better than the washerwoman.’

  The vision of an impoverished but romantic young lover died still-born. Daunted, Kitty said: ‘And was there no one else! No one at all? I declare, it must be as dull as my own home, and I had thought that nothing could be!’

  ‘Only young Mr Drakemire,’ said Olivia. ‘He is rather stout, but very genteel. He stood up twice with me at the Assembly, but the Drakemires, you must know, live at the Big House, and Lady Drakemire did not at all like his seeming to admire me, so he did not take me out driving as he said he would. Mama scolded, but indeed it was not my fault! I said everything she told me to, but it wouldn’t serve.’

  ‘I have sometimes thought,’ said Kitty, tentatively, and after a short pause, ‘that nothing could be more disagreeable than to marry a gentleman for whom one feels no strong attachment.’

  ‘No, indeed!’ Olivia sighed.

  ‘I could not do it. In fact, I would liefer by far die unwed!’

  ‘Would you?’ said Olivia wistfully. ‘But, then, dear Miss Charing, our circumstances are so different! You have all the comfort and consequence of fortune—’

  ‘No, I assure you I have not! I am wholly dependant upon the generosity of my guardian! I do not exaggerate when I say that I have not a penny in the world!’

  ‘Yes, but your guardian is rich, is he not? Mama, you see, is not rich at all, and I have three sisters,’ said Olivia unanswerably. ‘I must be married. Oh, how vexed Mama would be if she was obliged to take me home again, and all the money she saved for this visit spent to no purpose!’

  She looked so really frightened that Kitty said quickly: ‘Of course you will be married, and to a man you can esteem, too! Good gracious, don’t tell me you have not a great many admirers already, for I shall certainly not believe you! Indeed, I think everyone who sees you must admire you, for you are by far the prettiest girl in London!’

  Olivia coloured, and averted her face. ‘Don’t—pray! Gentlemen do sometimes admire me, but—but they do not offer to marry me. Situated as I am—the manners of my cousins—so very free!—I have met with a want of propriety in—in some whom I believed to be so very gentlemanly!’

  ‘I know what you mean, I daresay,’ said Kitty, wisely, but in blissful ignorance of Miss Broughty’s meaning. ‘You are now and then judged by your company, and you find yourself treated with that kind of high-bred insolence which I have frequently noticed in London, and which I do not consider high-bred at all, but, on the contrary, excessively ill-bred!’ She added frankly: ‘Forgive me, but I could not but notice that you were not quite pleased to meet Mr Westruther in Berkeley Square! If you should have thought that he was not civil to you when you met him previously, I assure you he does not mean to offend! He has sometimes a little height in his manner: Lady Buckhaven rallies him on it, saying he sets up people’s backs. He is never formal, you know—indeed, I fancy he treats no one with particular distinction!’

  ‘Oh, no!’ breathed Olivia. ‘I did not mean—I should not have mentioned—Such a very distinguished man! His air and address so exactly—’ She broke off in confusion, and quickly directed Kitty’s attention to a clump of purple crocuses.

  Some inkling of the truth began to dawn on Kitty. It was apparent to her that the magnificence of Mr Westruther had had its inevitable effect upon Miss Broughty. She did not wonder at it; she would indeed have found it hard to believe that any female could be ten minutes in Mr Westruther’s company without falling under the spell of his charm. But her sojourn in London, short though it had been, had convinced her that those who called Jack a shocking flirt spoke no less than the truth. It was, of course, reprehensible, but the failing did not diminish his charm: rather, it added to it, Kitty admitted to herself, a little guiltily. Nor was it just, she thought, to censure him too heavily, for the many ladies who blatantly set their caps at him gave him every encouragement to persist in his evil ways. But Kitty had quite a shrewd head on her shoulders, for all her country innocence, and somewhere, at the very back of her mind, not consciously acknowledged, lurked the conviction that Jack would never marry to his own disadvantage. None knew better than she what havoc he could create in female breasts; it would be dreadful if he (unwittingly, of course) scarred Olivia’s tender heart. She said impulsively: ‘Yes, Freddy—Mr Standen—calls him a buck of
the first head! He is precisely the hero every schoolroom-miss dreams about—as I have told him! I have known him all my life, you must understand: we have been as cousins.’

  ‘Yes,’ Olivia said, still with her eyes fixed on the crocuses. ‘I collected, when he came in—I was not previously aware of the relationship.’

  ‘Oh, in fact there is none!’ Kitty interrupted. ‘I call all my guardian’s great-nephews my cousins! Yes, what a splendid patch of colour, to be sure! Another day will see them in full bloom, but we shall take cold if we stand still in this sharp wind!’

  They walked on, the path soon leading them to the promenade flanking the carriage-way. It was not long before a most unwelcome sight assailed Miss Broughty’s eyes. She said, under her breath: ‘Sir Henry Gosford! I implore you, dear Miss Charing, do not desert me!’

  Kitty had not the smallest intention of deserting her, being wholly unacquainted with the tactics adopted by her cousins, the misses Scorton; but she had no time to reassure her: that time-worn beau, Sir Henry Gosford, had already swept off his hat, and was executing a bow before them. ‘Venus, with Attendant Nymph!’ he uttered.

 
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