Cotillion, p.23
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       Cotillion, p.23

           Georgette Heyer
 

  ‘Upon my word!’ Biddenden said explosively. ‘You’re very squeamish all at once! A new come-out for you to be taking exception to a complaisant husband!’

  ‘You mistake, George: no man sets a greater value on these gentry than I. My contempt is roused by the blubber-headedness that leads you into such gross error. Kitty had never such an idea in her mind. What a clodpole you are, dear coz! You have rusticated for too long—indeed, you have!’

  He left Biddenden fuming and speechless; but although he was smiling, the seed of doubt had been sown. The suggestion that Kitty wished for a complaisant husband he was able to dismiss with as much contempt as he had shown George; a suspicion that she might succumb to the lure of a high title lingered uncomfortably. He met her at Almack’s Assembly Rooms on the following evening, claimed her hand for the boulanger, and chose to sit out the dance with her. The involuntary giggle which escaped her when he complimented her on her new conquest informed him that his suspicion had been unworthy. He said curiously: ‘I wish you will tell me, my pretty one, what is this deep game you are playing?’

  She turned her wide, disconcerting gaze upon him enquiringly.

  ‘Well?’ he said, holding the gaze, a challenge and a laugh in his eyes. ‘Such an eligible suitor as you have acquired, my dear! They tell me you are for ever in his company. I wonder that Freddy will permit it!’

  She sipped her lemonade. ‘Freddy knows all the games I play,’ she replied tranquilly.

  ‘Does he? Poor Freddy! He has my most profound sympathy.’ He took her fan from her, and spread it open. ‘Very pretty. Did he give it to you? I did not!’

  ‘Oh, no! The one you gave me would not do with this dress. Though it is very pretty too, and I frequently carry it,’ said Kitty, in a kind voice.

  ‘I am honoured,’ he bowed, giving it back to her. He spoke smoothly, but there was a spark of anger in his eye. The little girl who adored him was learning too many town-tricks, and needed a lesson. If she imagined that he could be brought to heel by such tactics as these, it would be well for her to discover her mistake. For a cynical moment, he found himself thinking that it would really have been better for him to have swallowed his annoyance at Mr Penicuik’s arbitrary conduct; to have gone to Arnside; and to have become formally betrothed to the heiress. He knew well that Mr Penicuik, concerned first and last with his own comfort, would not have pressed for a speedy marriage, but would have been glad to have kept Kitty with him, safely engaged, but free to wait upon him while he had need of her services. Mr Westruther, who never tried to deceive himself, was forced to acknowledge that Kitty’s riposte had taken him by surprise. He had been amused at first; but the more sophisticated she became the less was he pleased. Nor was her visit to London well-timed. Mr Westruther, pursuing another quarry, found her presence at first tiresome; and, when she became acquainted with the lovely Miss Broughty, disastrous. He had done what he could to bring that friendship to an end; but although he had been easily able to inspire Meg to protest against it, he could not feel that Kitty was very likely to pay much heed to her featherbrained hostess. It was plain that such a friendship must lead to undesirable complications. Olivia seemed not to have admitted Kitty into her confidence; she would certainly do so if the acquaintance were allowed to ripen; and although Mr Westruther had conferred no right on Kitty to censure his morals or his conduct, and was by no means averse from allowing her to see that she was not the only woman in his life, this was not the moment he would have chosen for such a disclosure as Olivia might make. When he had found Olivia in Berkeley Square, he had been conscious of a feeling of unaccustomed annoyance. He was a man of even temper, regarding his world with an amused and a cynical eye, able nearly always to shrug away irritations with a laugh; but the discovery that Kitty had made a friend of the pretty creature on whom he was prepared to bestow everything but his name aroused real anger in his breast. He thought savagely that it was just like her; and remembered with unaffectionate clarity the many occasions when she had seemed to him to be an extremely tiresome little girl. He could almost have believed that she had done it to vex him. But that would have involved Freddy in the affair, who must have told her the truth; and although, in momentary exasperation, he had accused Freddy of this treachery, he knew that he had done his amiable cousin an injustice. He might mock at Freddy, but he was carelessly fond of him, and he knew him to be wholly incapable of making so unhandsome a gesture. The acquaintanceship had indeed sprung from a chance meeting; and for one of its unfortunate repercussions he had no one but himself to blame. It had been he who had introduced her fascinating French cousin to Kitty. Nothing, he ruefully acknowledged, could have been more natural than Kitty’s subsequent presentation of the Chevalier to her new friend.

  Calling in Hans Crescent with every intention of taking Olivia out in his curricle to Richmond, he had found the Chevalier very much at home in the drawing-room, captivating Mrs Broughty as much as her daughter. This circumstance was easily explained: everything about the Chevalier bespoke the man of birth and fortune. If his handsome face, and sweetness of manner, attracted Olivia, it was his air of affluence which made him acceptable to Mrs Broughty. No one could have accused him of boasting of his aristocratic connections, but in his conversation he betrayed an intimate knowledge of the French world of fashion; while a passing, careless reference to his uncle, the Marquis, and another to a château in Auvergne, had the effect of impressing Mrs Broughty strongly in his favour. A young Frenchman, visiting England for his pleasure, and related to the lady who was betrothed to Lord Legerwood’s eldest son, bore all the outward appearance of a desirable parti; and if he was not perhaps as wealthy as Sir Henry Gosford he was no doubt quite wealthy enough to come to agreeable terms with Olivia’s Mama.

  But Mr Westruther, ushered into the drawing-room, and dominating the company with his height, and his air of easy assurance, received a sufficiently warm welcome from Mrs Broughty. She stood a little in awe of him; she was flattered by his attentions to her daughter, for although she might be in some doubt of the Chevalier’s position she had no doubt at all of Mr Westruther’s. He was an acknowledged leader of fashion; he belonged to that select world which haughtily refused to admit her into its ranks; and he was so much petted and courted that to have won his favour was a triumph for any lady. She was uncertain of only two circumstances: the size of his fortune, and the precise nature of his intentions. Mr Westruther, well-aware of this, made no effort to enlighten her on either point, the first of which, he guessed, was the one of paramount importance. Mr Westruther had his own notion of the circumstances under which the enterprising lady had induced the late Oliver Broughty to marry her; and he did not suppose that she would scruple to sell any of her daughters into elegant prostitution, provided that the price offered were high enough. Probably she would prefer to marry Olivia to the aged Sir Henry Gosford; but if Olivia were to prove intractable it was not likely that her Mama would repulse other, less respectable, offers. Not that Mr Westruther had the smallest intention of negotiating any kind of bargain with a woman whom he comprehensively despised. He found Olivia enchanting, but he wanted no unwilling mistress. He was not the only man casting out lures to the lovely creature, but until he found the Chevalier ensconced in the drawing-room in Hans Crescent he knew himself to be without serious rival.

  He paused for a moment on the threshold, raising his quizzing-glass, smiling at Olivia, raising an eyebrow at the Chevalier, sweeping Mrs Broughty with the indulgent, mocking glance which both enraged and impressed her. ‘Ma’am!’ He made his bow to Mrs Broughty. ‘Your very obedient! Miss Broughty, your slave! Chevalier!’ A nod sufficed for the Chevalier, but when Olivia held out her hand he took it, and held it, saying laughingly: ‘“Most radiant, exquisite, and unmatchable beauty,” can I persuade you to drive out with me?’

  Miss Charing, had she been present, would undoubtedly have been able to have supplied Olivia with the context of these mock-heroics; Olivia
, by far less well-read, was cast into adorable confusion, looking at once flattered and frightened, and murmured: ‘Oh, pray—! How foolish of you! It is so very obliging of you, but it is not in my power to accept! We are in the expectation of receiving friends.’

  ‘Alas!’ he said lightly. ‘My luck is quite out. Shall I go away at once, or may I sit with you for a few minutes?’

  Mrs Broughty, crying out against the suggestion that he should depart, pressed him to take refreshment. He declined it, but sat down, stayed talking lazily for a quarter of an hour, and then rose, saying that he must no longer keep his horses standing. ‘How came you here, d’Evron? Can I offer you a seat in my curricle? You have not set up your own carriage, I fancy?’

  ‘No; it seems not worth the pain. In general, I hire a vehicle; today I came here in what I am informed I must call a hack. I have that correctly?’

  ‘Oh, perfectly! Your command of the English tongue compels one’s admiration. If you came in a hack, you must certainly allow me to convey you back to Duke Street. Farewell, sovereign cruelty! I shall hope for better fortune the next time I come to visit you!’

  The Chevalier, perceiving that Mr Westruther had no intention of leaving him in possession of the field, submitted gracefully, bowed over the ladies’ hands, and accompanied his ruthless benefactor out into the street. A compliment to Mr Westruther on his horses was indifferently received, and failed to divert him from his purpose. ‘Yes, a match pair,’ he replied. ‘And how have you been going on since I last saw you, my dear d’Evron? You contrive to amuse yourself tolerably well in London?’

  ‘Indeed, I shall not know how to tear myself away! I have met with such kindness, and feel myself quite at home in consequence.’

  ‘Your charm of manner has swept all before it,’ said Mr Westruther. ‘I am for ever being asked who is my delightful French acquaintance, and where he comes from.’

  ‘Ah, this is some of the taquinerie for which you are famous, I think!’

  ‘Not at all. I am sure the friends you have made in England are legion. Now, who was it who wished to know only the other day where you had hidden yourself? Hoped you had not fallen a victim to the influenza—Yes, of course! It was Lady Maria Yalding! To have made such a conquest as that is something indeed!’

  ‘I cannot flatter myself so grossly,’ responded the Chevalier quietly. ‘But you remind me of my obligations, sir: Lady Maria has been most kind, and I must not neglect her.’

  ‘Just so,’ agreed Mr Westruther. ‘One sees the temptation, of course, but it would be folly not to withstand it.’

  ‘I understand you, I suppose,’ the Chevalier said after a moment, and in a mortified tone.

  ‘I feel sure you do: so quick-witted, you Frenchmen! You must forgive my meddling: since I had the pleasure of bringing you and your cousin together I must think myself in some sort responsible for you. I should dislike excessively to see you tumble into one of the pitfalls with which society is so amply provided. Always so difficult for a foreigner to recognize them, isn’t it?’

  ‘Do you mean to indicate, sir, that we have just left one of these pitfalls?’ asked the Chevalier, taking the bull by the horns.

  ‘Why, yes!’ said Mr Westruther, pulling up from the turnpike. ‘Charming, of course—quite the most ravishingly lovely little ladybird in town!—but no fortune, my dear d’Evron, and a mother who is a veritable harpy!’

  ‘I am aware.’

  ‘Naturally. She should have been an Abbess—ah, an entremetteuse, Chevalier! The fair Olivia is for sale to the highest bidder.’

  ‘Sir Henry Gosford? The thought revolts!’

  The pike was open, and Mr Westruther set his pair in motion again, keeping them rigidly to a sedate pace, unusual in him. ‘Gosford, if Olivia will have him,’ he agreed. ‘He is wealthy—a matter of primary importance to Mrs Broughty; and he is besotted enough to offer marriage—not, I fancy, so important, but still desirable.’

  ‘You appal me!’ the Chevalier exclaimed. ‘It cannot be that the woman would allow that beautiful innocent to become a man’s mistress!’

  Mr Westruther laughed softly. ‘Unless I miss my bet, d’Evron, Mrs Broughty, until she entrapped the late Broughty into marriage, was herself what we call a prime article—of Covent Garden notoriety, you know! I should suppose that that way of life may not appear to her so undesirable as it seems to appear to you.’

  ‘Horrible! It is horrible to think of such a thing in connection with that girl!’ the Chevalier said vehemently.

  ‘My dear young friend, are you picturing the fair Olivia in the Magdalen?’ said Mr Westruther, with a touch of impatience. ‘There is not the least reason to suppose that she would not enjoy a varied and a luxurious career, and, in all probability, end her days in a state of considerable affluence. We do not all of us cast our mistresses naked upon the world, you know!’

  ‘Sir!’ said the Chevalier, trying to control his agitation. ‘You have been frank! I shall ask you to pardon me if I too speak without restraint! Is it thus that you desire mademoiselle?’

  ‘It is certainly not as my wife,’ replied Mr Westruther, rather haughtily.

  ‘I would do all within my power to prevent it!’

  A slight smile crossed Mr Westruther’s face. ‘But, then, there is really so little within your power, is there? If I were you—and this is the friendliest advice I can give you!—I would strive to forget Olivia, and continue to besiege Lady Maria’s citadel. I wish you very well at that, and will engage not to cast the least rub in your way. But you must not trespass upon my ground, you know. Not the smallest good can come of it, I do assure you. I am persuaded you did not come to London with the intention of marrying a penniless girl. Nor do I think you have sufficiently appreciated the determination of Mrs Broughty. Perhaps you have no objection to the enquiries she will certainly make into your precise circumstances; but do, my dear d’Evron, consider what might be the consequences if some malicious person were to breathe into the lady’s ear a doubt—just a doubt!’

  The Frenchman stiffened, and paused for a moment before reply: ‘In effect, you are offensive, sir!’

  ‘Oh, no, no!’ Mr Westruther said gently. ‘You mistake!’

  ‘I must believe you to be my enemy!’

  ‘Again you mistake. I am sufficiently—how shall I put it?—an âme de boue!—to derive considerable enjoyment from watching your progress, Chevalier! It commands my admiration. Indeed, I should be sorry to see it blighted, and I wish you all success with the Yalding. There will be certain difficulties, of course, but she is both headstrong and obstinate, while you are adroit, and I am persuaded you will overcome them, carrying her off, as it were, in Annerwick’s teeth. That will afford quite a number of persons enjoyment. You are not acquainted with Lady Maria’s Papa? You are to be felicitated: an unlovable man! And here we are at Duke Street!’

  ‘I must thank you, sir, for bringing me here!’ said the Chevalier formally, preparing to alight.

  ‘A pleasure, believe me!’ smiled Mr Westruther. ‘Au revoir, my dear sir!’

  Two days later, when driving Kitty in the Park, at the fashionable hour, he was able to observe the fruits of his encounter with her cousin. London was still a little thin of company, but the unusually clement weather, which had brought the hunting season to an early close, had tempted many to return to town. Quite a number of notabilities were to be seen, riding or driving in the Park, and Kitty was kept very well-entertained by Mr Westruther’s pithy descriptions of their identities, their manners, and their foibles. It was when they were approaching the Riding House on their second circuit that they met Lady Maria Yalding’s barouche. A press of vehicles had brought both the barouche and the curricle momentarily to a standstill, and they stood alongside each other for long enough for the occupants of each to have time for recognition, and greetings. Beside Lady Maria’s buxom form, splendidly attired in purple, abov
e which her high-coloured face rose triumphant, sat the Chevalier, listening with an air of absorbed interest to what she was saying. Upon the lady’s hailing Mr Westruther in her bluff, rather loud-voiced way, he glanced up quickly, met Mr Westruther’s eyes, and at once turned his attention to Kitty, saying, as he took off his hat, and sketched a bow: ‘Ah, well met, my dear cousin! I do not know, Lady Maria, if you are acquainted with Miss Charing?’

  The protuberant eyes stared at Kitty. Lady Maria said: ‘Oh, yes! Met you somewhere, I believe, Miss Charing. Staying with Lady Buckhaven, aren’t you? Lovely weather, isn’t it? I say, Westruther, do you see the Angleseys are back in town? Just met Anglesey, with his girls. My dear Camille, what is holding us up for so long? Some fool trying to lionize, I daresay, with a badly broke horse! Oh, now we are off! Goodbye! Happy to meet you again some day, Miss—can’t remember names!’

  Mr Westruther allowed his pair to have their heads a little, and as they were on the fret Kitty was whisked off before she could reply to this brusque speech. She said, in a tone of strong displeasure: ‘What very odd manners, to be sure!’

  ‘You need not regard her: all the Annerwicks are famed for their rudeness,’ responded Mr Westruther. ‘They are convinced, you see, that they are vastly superior to the rest of mankind, and so have no need to waste civility.’

  ‘I am astonished that Camille should be so often in her company,’ Kitty remarked, wrinkling her brow. ‘He escorted her to the play last night, you know: I saw him, for I was there with Freddy, and the Legerwoods. It is quite impossible that he should like her! But they must be upon excessively friendly terms for her to call him Camille in that odious way! It doesn’t seem to me at all the thing.’

 
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