Cotillion, p.22
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       Cotillion, p.22

           Georgette Heyer
 

  ‘Does signify. Here’s m’mother wanting to know what I’m about to let you go all over town with Dolph! Never felt such a flat in my life!’

  ‘Oh, I am so very sorry!’ said Kitty contritely.

  ‘Yes, I daresay, but I’m dashed if I see what your lay is! If you wanted Dolph, why the deuce didn’t you accept his offer? No need to have dragged me into the business at all.’

  Kitty laid an impulsive hand on his arm. ‘Freddy, you could not think that I would ever marry poor Dolph?’

  ‘Well, no,’ admitted Freddy. ‘In fact, I’ll take dashed good care you don’t!’

  ‘I don’t want to! Though, I must say, Freddy, it is not in the least your affair!’

  ‘That’s just what it is,’ said Freddy bitterly. ‘No good saying I ain’t responsible for you, because I am. Mind, I didn’t think I should have to be at the outset—well, stands to reason I didn’t! Wouldn’t have let you talk me into this!—but the more I think of it the more I see that if you go and do something cork-brained there ain’t a soul who won’t say it was my fault for not taking better care of you.’

  ‘Oh, no, Freddy!’ she cried, shocked. ‘How could people say such a thing?’

  ‘Well, they would. What’s more, quite true! Daresay I’d say it myself. Can’t bring a girl to town like this, and then let her do something bird-witted. Not the thing!’

  ‘I promise you I won’t do anything bird-witted!’ Kitty said earnestly, clasping his hand. ‘Indeed, Freddy, I don’t mean to tease you, for I am so very much obliged to you! And I never, never meant to be a charge on you!’

  Much discomposed, Freddy made inarticulate noises. Miss Charing, still holding his hand, thought profoundly. Recovering himself, Freddy said: ‘No need to talk like that, Kit: happy to be of service! Fond of you! Proud of you, too.’

  She turned her eyes towards him, astonished. ‘Proud of me? Oh, no! how could you be? You’re hoaxing me!’

  ‘No, I ain’t. You’ve got taste, Kit. Always look just the thing! Credit to me!’ He paused, and added, his brow creasing: ‘At least, except when you wear the wrong jewels. Ought to let me give you that garnet-set! No reason why you shouldn’t: the merest trumpery! Assure you!’

  ‘There is every reason!’ she responded, pressing his hand tightly, her eyes swimming. ‘Oh, Freddy, you are so very good to me, and I see what a Wretch I am to have put you in this fix!’

  ‘No, no!’ he said, horrified to see tears in her eyes. ‘Now, for the lord’s sake, Kit—! Nothing to cry about! Besides, can’t cry here! Have all the fools gaping at us! I ain’t in a fix. Only thing is, won’t have you attaching Dolph to you.’ He looked round the room. ‘Where the deuce is the fellow?’ he demanded.

  ‘In one of the other rooms. Oh, Freddy, dare I trust you?’

  ‘Well, upon my word!’ he exclaimed, affronted. ‘Seems to me that if you didn’t know that when you made me become engaged to you you must be as badly dicked in the nob as Dolph!’

  ‘Yes, yes, but this is not my secret, and I promised I would betray it to no one!’

  ‘What secret?’ said Freddy, blinking.

  ‘Well—Freddy, you are fond of Dolph, are you not?’

  ‘No,’ replied Freddy. ‘What I mean is, sorry for the poor fellow, of course. Dash it, couldn’t be fond of him!’

  ‘No, I suppose—At all events, you wouldn’t harm him, would you, Freddy?’

  ‘Of course I wouldn’t harm him!’

  ‘Even if you could not quite like what he meant to do?’ Kitty said anxiously.

  Suspicion gleamed in his mild eye. No one could have called Mr Standen quick-witted, but the possession of three sisters had considerably sharpened his instinct of self-preservation. ‘Depends what that is,’ he said cautiously. ‘If it has anything to do with you, Kit—’

  ‘No, I promise you it has not!’

  ‘Sounds to me like a smoke,’ he said, by no means convinced. ‘Because if it hasn’t anything to do with you–’

  ‘Only that I am going to help him!’

  Mr Standen thought this over, and came to the conclusion that there was only one way in which his unfortunate relative could be helped. ‘If you’re hatching a scheme to poison Aunt Augusta, I won’t have anything to do with it!’ he said.

  ‘How can you be so absurd? Of course I am not!’

  ‘Good thing, if one could do it,’ said Freddy handsomely. ‘Thing is, bound to be a scandal. If it ain’t that, what do you mean to do?’

  ‘Let us go and find Dolph!’ said Kitty. ‘Mind, Freddy! Even though you may not approve of it, you won’t breathe a word to your Aunt Augusta!’

  The suggestion that he could be thought capable either of enacting the rôle of informer, or of bandying unnecessary words with Lady Dolphinton, so much revolted Mr Standen that he was moved to expostulate. Kitty begged pardon hastily, and dragged him into the adjoining room. Here Lord Dolphinton and Miss Plymstock were discovered, seated side by side upon a plush-covered settee in the middle of the room, his lordship plunged in gloom, and Miss Plymstock soothingly patting his hand. When they perceived Miss Charing and her escort, they both rose, Dolphinton looking frightened, and Miss Plymstock pugnacious.

  ‘I think, Hannah, that you have already met Mr Standen,’ said Kitty. ‘I have told him nothing, but I think we ought to admit him into our confidence, and I have come to ask your permission to do so.’

  ‘How d’ye do?’ said Miss Plymstock, extending a hand sensibly gloved in York tan. ‘Miss Charing was so obliging as to say that you would not take exception to Foster’s being a good deal in her company, but I thought to myself that she was very likely mistaken. You’re Foster’s cousin Freddy, ain’t you?’

  Considerably taken aback, Freddy admitted it. His hand was crushed in a hearty grip; Miss Plymstock said in her blunt fashion: ‘I daresay you won’t like it above half, but I mean to marry Foster, and you don’t look to me like one who would try to throw a rub in the way!’

  ‘No, no!’ uttered Freddy feebly, casting a wild glance in Miss Charing’s direction.

  ‘Miss Charing is being so kind as to lend us her aid,’ pursued Miss Plymstock. ‘For my brother don’t like the match any more than the Countess would, I can tell you, and how to meet Foster, with the spies we both have set about us, is more than either of us knew how to do. But Sam—that’s my brother—only knows I bear Miss Charing company on some of her expeditions; and the Countess is pleased enough to think Foster is fixing his interest with her; and if she knows I go along too, as I don’t doubt she does, she don’t think any more than that Miss Charing takes me for propriety, which is what anyone would expect; and if she saw me she wouldn’t spare me a second glance, I’ll lay my life, for I’m no beauty, and never was.’

  Mr Standen, reeling under the impact of this forthright speech, had scarcely recovered himself sufficiently to murmur a polite rejoinder, when he received (as he afterwards expressed it to Miss Charing) a floorer from Lord Dolphinton, who said: ‘Yes, you are. Very beautiful. Kind of face I like.’

  Mr Standen took another look at the homely countenance confronting him, realized that his unfortunate cousin was of unsounder mind than he had supposed, and said kindly; ‘Exactly so!’

  ‘Well, that’s all a hum,’ said Miss Plymstock bracingly. ‘What’s more, my brother’s in trade, and so was my father before him, and I’ve no fortune. I’m telling you so to your head, because no good ever came of hoaxing people. If you think I ain’t fit to match with an Earl, why, I know that as well as anyone, but I shall make Foster a better wife than any of the grand ladies he might offer for, and so I assure you!’

  Much alarmed by the unmistakeably belligerent note in Miss Plymstock’s voice, Freddy hastened to say: ‘Nothing to do with me! Not my affair, y’know!’

  ‘You would not try to intervene, would you, Freddy?’ Kitty asked.

  ‘No
, no! Word of a gentleman! In fact, rather not have anything to do with it!’ said Freddy, in a burst of candour.

  But Miss Charing was not at all inclined to permit him to adopt this craven attitude. She obliged him to sit down between herself and Hannah upon the settee, while she poured into his unwilling ear the full tale of his cousin’s difficulties. Miss Plymstock punctuated the recital with corroborations and occasional emendations; and Lord Dolphinton stood before the group, watching Freddy with very much the look of an anxious spaniel doubtful whether he was to receive a pat or a kick. Freddy found his intent gaze unnerving, and several times begged him to sit down. Lord Dolphinton shook his head. ‘Mean to marry Hannah,’ he said.

  ‘That’s right, old fellow,’ responded Freddy. ‘No need to stand there staring at me, even if you do.’

  ‘Keep an eye on you,’ said his lordship. ‘See what you’re thinking. Hannah says you won’t like it. I don’t think you won’t like it. Been watching you. Don’t look to be in a miff. You ain’t in a miff, are you, Freddy?’ Reassured on this head, he regarded his cousin with fond gratitude, and said: ‘You know what, Freddy? I like you. Always did. I like you better than Hugh. Like you better than Jack. Better than Biddenden. Don’t like him at all. Don’t like Claud much either.’

  ‘Yes, well, much obliged to you, Dolph!’ said Freddy patiently. ‘But it ain’t a bit of use thinking I can help you in this fix, because I dashed well can’t!’

  ‘Kitty’s going to help us,’ said Dolphinton, with simple faith.

  ‘That’s as may be,’ interposed Miss Plymstock. ‘There is no need for you to tease yourself, Foster, for we shall contrive in some way or another; but it seems to me it’s for Mr Standen to say whether Miss Charing may stand our friend or not. And if you don’t choose she should, sir, there’s no one could blame you, for I don’t doubt that Foster’s Mama will kick up a rare dust, and behave mighty unpleasantly to her.’

  ‘It don’t signify what my Aunt Augusta does,’ replied Freddy, for the second time in his career astonishing Kitty by a display of courage which seemed to her to verge on foolhardiness. ‘Can’t do Kit a mischief: shouldn’t let her. Daresay she’ll set up a screech. Thing is, Kit don’t live with her, and nor do I. Shan’t have to listen to anything she says.’

  Miss Plymstock, listening to this eminently practical speech with warm approval, was moved to grasp Mr Standen’s hand again. ‘You’re a sensible man!’ she said gruffly. ‘Now, you listen to what your cousin says, Foster, and think if it ain’t what I’ve been drumming into your head this age past! Once the knot’s tied between us, and I have you safe, there’s nothing your Mama can do to hurt you, and so I promise you! You tell him that’s true, Mr Standen!’

  ‘Yes, I daresay it is,’ agreed Freddy, recovering his hand, and hoping very much that she would not feel herself impelled to wring it a third time. ‘The thing is, the knot ain’t tied, and I’m dashed if I see how it is to be, if Dolph’s being spied on all the time.’

  ‘We shall think of a way,’ said Kitty.

  Her betrothed regarded her with misgiving. ‘Yes, but it won’t do if you think of sending ’em off to Gretna Green, or anything like that, Kit. Not one to throw a rub in your way, but that’s coming it too strong!’

  ‘Yes, indeed! In any event, Miss Plymstock thinks it would not answer, so you may be easy!’

  Mr Standen, however, was not at all easy; and he took the earliest opportunity of telling Kitty so. ‘Shatterbrained, that’s what you are, my dear girl!’ he informed her, with some severity. ‘First it’s one thing, and then it’s another! Told me you wanted to come to town to establish yourself, but all you do is to mix yourself up in affairs that don’t concern you. Shouldn’t wonder if you were to find yourself at a standstill.’

  ‘But, Freddy, you would not have me refuse to help poor Dolph?’

  ‘Well, I would,’ he said. ‘Mind, it don’t matter to me if he chooses to marry that shocking fright, because he ain’t a Standen, for one thing; and for another he’s so badly touched in his upper works there’s no saying but what he might not do something a dashed sight worse than marry a tradesman’s daughter. Thing is, bound to be a rare kick-up if the thing comes off, and I’d as lief having nothing to do with it.’ He met Miss Charing’s slightly reproachful eyes manfully, and added: ‘Tell you what, Kit! Got too kind a heart!’

  A smile swept across her face. ‘Oh, Freddy, how absurd you are! When you have a much kinder one than I have!’

  ‘No, really, Kit!’ protested Freddy, revolted. ‘Haven’t got anything of the sort! Been on the town for years!’

  ‘Yes, you have,’ averred Kitty, lifting his hand to her cheek for a brief moment. ‘And when I consider how dreadfully I have imposed upon you—Oh, well! At least, I promise I won’t embroil you in this business! You won’t object to it if I help them? For it is the most shocking thing, Freddy!—I could not speak of it with Dolph standing by, but Lady Dolphinton holds him in subjection by threatening to have him shut up as a lunatic! And that he is not!’

  ‘You don’t mean it?’ exclaimed Freddy, much struck. ‘Of course he ain’t a lunatic! Got no brains, that’s all. Well, I ain’t got any either, but you wouldn’t say I was a lunatic, would you?’

  ‘No, and you have got brains, Freddy!’ said Kitty indignantly.

  Mr Standen, already shaken by having his hand rubbed worshipfully against a lady’s cheek, goggled at her. ‘You think I’ve got brains?’ he said, awed. ‘Not confusing me with Charlie?’

  ‘Charlie?’ uttered Miss Charing contemptuously. ‘I daresay he has book-learning, but you have—you have address, Freddy!’

  ‘Well, by Jove!’ said Mr Standen, dazzled by this new vision of himself.

  Fourteen

  Meanwhile, that noted Corinthian, Mr Jack Westruther, was rapidly passing from a state of amused tolerance to one of slightly puzzled exasperation. That Kitty should cajole Mr Standen into a counterfeit betrothal with the object of arousing jealousy in the breast of the man she really loved was something Mr Westruther could understand, and even appreciate. That she should decline his invitations for no better alternative than a few hours spent in Dolphinton’s company was something he was very far from appreciating. She could not, he was persuaded, hope to awaken one spark of jealousy in him by such absurd tactics. He did not think so poorly of her as to suppose that she might seriously be encouraging his lordship’s advances, for he held Dolphinton in utter contempt; but a chance meeting with his cousin Biddenden, in Boodle’s Club, certainly sowed a seed of doubt in his mind.

  ‘So Kitty Charing has a fancy to become a Countess!’ said Biddenden, with a short laugh. ‘Well! I am not at all astonished! I’m sure I hope you are satisfied, Jack! A rare bungle you have made of it, you and Hugh between you!’

  ‘Don’t you mean a Viscountess, George?’ suggested Mr Westruther amiably.

  ‘No, I don’t. She’ll be Countess of Dolphinton before the year’s out, mark me! Much good may it do her!’

  ‘Would you care to hazard a bet on the chance?’

  ‘You’d lose!’ said his lordship brutally. ‘You thought the girl was head over ears in love with you, didn’t you? Well, I thought it too, and nicely bubbled we have been! It’s my belief she’s a deep ’un, and had her eye on Dolphinton from the outset.’

  ‘I do hope, my dear George, that you mean to explain to me why, if this is so, she did not take him when she had the chance offered to her? I seem to be remarkably dull-witted today, for the reason is hid from me,’ said Mr Westruther, with unabated amiability.

  ‘You’d know fast enough had you been at Arnside,’ replied Biddenden. ‘The girl was in such a pet she was ready to throw a fortune to the wind, and took Freddy merely to spite the rest of us.’

  ‘No: only to spite me!’ said Mr Westruther, laughing.

  ‘Much you know! If Dolphinton had gone about the business like a man of s
ense, instead of as good as telling her he hoped she’d refuse his offer, she’d have accepted him! Good God, Jack, you never heard anything to equal it! The fellow’s as mad as Bedlam, and ought to be shut up!’

  ‘Undoubtedly. May I know whence you culled this farradiddle? If you came to town only two days ago you have certainly been busy!’

  ‘Oh, I had it from my Aunt Augusta!’ Biddenden replied. ‘She is in high croak, I can tell you! And well she may be! When I think of Dolphinton’s inheriting Uncle Matthew’s fortune—Upon my soul, Jack, I had a great deal rather it was you!’

  ‘Handsome of you!’ said Mr Westruther, grinning at him.

  ‘Ay, well, it won’t be you!’ said Biddenden crossly. ‘You can lay your life to that! Kitty has shown her hand plainly enough. Either she meant to have Dolphinton all along, and took Freddy merely because she could scarcely accept such an offer as that idiot made her—with Hugh and me standing by, too!—or she fancied a Viscount to be as good as an Earl, until she came to town, and learned her mistake!’

  ‘What a foolish fellow you are, George!’ said Mr Westruther gently. ‘Whatever else Kitty may have learnt in town, she has not learnt to think that beggarly Earldom superior to the title Freddy will inherit.’

  ‘Very true! An Irish title, too! I would not give a groat for it myself. But an Earl is always an Earl, you know, and ten to one my aunt has stuffed the girl’s head full of nonsense about the great position she would occupy if she were to marry that dolt.’ He pursed up his mouth, and sat twirling his quizzing-glass on the end of its riband. ‘I fancy Kitty is not the innocent we took her for,’ he said, after a pause. ‘It occurs to me that she may very likely have come to the realization that marriage with Dolphinton would carry with it certain compensations. A complaisant husband, my dear Jack, is not altogether to be despised!’

  Mr Westruther got up out of his chair. ‘No? but you are, George! Believe me, you are!’

  Lord Biddenden flushed, and half started to his feet. Mr Westruther, observing him with a good deal of mockery in his eyes, said: ‘I shouldn’t, George: really, I shouldn’t! Your credit would never survive a vulgar brawl in Boodle’s; and although I daresay you would like to plant me a facer you must know very well that it is quite beyond your power to do it.’

 
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