Cotillion, p.24
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       Cotillion, p.24

           Georgette Heyer
 

  ‘It should perhaps be explained to you that Lady Maria is a very rich woman.’

  ‘That is what Freddy said, but I will not allow it to be true that Camille is a fortune-hunter!’

  He was amused. ‘What a high flight!’

  ‘It is odious, Jack! Surely you must perceive that!’

  ‘Not at all. Think of the offers you yourself received when it became known you were an heiress!’

  She coloured. ‘Indeed, I thought them odious too!’

  ‘Dear me! Even Freddy’s?’

  She knew not how to reply to this; and, after a moment, said rather lamely: ‘He did not offer for that reason.’

  ‘Or at all?’ suggested Mr Westruther.

  She put up her chin. ‘Of course! You may ask George and Hugh if you don’t believe me! They were both present! Besides—what an absurd thing to say! Pray, how could I be engaged to him if he had not offered for me?’

  ‘Well, you might have offered for him,’ said Mr Westruther thoughtfully.

  She was now very much flushed, and answered with some difficulty: ‘I wish you will not talk such nonsense!’

  ‘And I wish that you would stop behaving so nonsensically, foolish child! Freddy, indeed! As well ask me to believe that you mean to marry Dolphinton!’

  Her eyes flashed. ‘How dare you say such a thing, Jack? To compare Freddy with poor Dolph—! It is the most infamous thing, and I won’t endure it!’

  His brows rose. ‘But what heat! It does you the greatest credit, my dear, but it is quite uncalled for. I intended no comparison: merely the one is as unlikely a suitor as the other. Am I forgiven?’

  ‘I am sure it is of no consequence,’ she said stiffly. ‘Oh, there is Miss Broughty, walking with her cousins! Pray, will you pull up for a moment?’

  ‘No,’ he said. ‘I have no wish to talk to Miss Broughty, or her deplorable cousins, and I would advise you, my love, to be a little more careful what friends you make in London. This connection cannot add to your credit, believe me!’

  ‘I have no patience with such stupid pride!’ she said. ‘It is all folly and self-consequence!’

  He glanced down at her, a glint in his eye. ‘You are becoming remarkably hot at hand, my child, are you not? No: Freddy is decidedly not the man to control your spurts! However, don’t let us quarrel! I want to talk to you of quite another matter. Have you had any news lately from Arnside?’

  She turned her head, surprised. ‘Why, yes! Fish writes to me every week!’

  ‘Have you any notion that all is not well there?’

  ‘Not the least in the world!’ she replied. ‘To be sure, poor Fish could do nothing but bemoan her lot at first, but she is a such a good creature she has made the best of it, and, indeed, is not, I think, managing so very ill. Uncle Matthew’s gout is less painful, which must make it not so disagreeable for Fish. Why should you suppose something is amiss?’

  ‘Merely that I have had no word from him. In general, he is a regular correspondent of mine, as you may know. However, I daresay I am in disgrace with him.’

  She knew that this was true, but said nothing. Mr Westruther turned his head, and she saw that his eyes were laughing again. ‘For not obeying his peremptory summons,’ he explained.

  ‘He did not quite like it, perhaps,’ she acknowledged. ‘He has the oddest notions! For my part, I was thankful that you did not come. I knew you would not, of course.’

  ‘Why, yes, I imagine you might,’ he said. She looked up quickly, and he added, smiling: ‘I never supposed, Kitty, that you would wish me to offer for you at my grand-uncle’s bidding.’

  ‘Most certainly not!’

  ‘Like Dolphinton, and Hugh—and not like Freddy,’ he said. ‘I, too, have the oddest notions, and one of them is that I will be neither bribed nor coerced into a proposal of marriage. Really, I think my uncle should have known me better. You too, dear Kitty.’

  ‘I knew you very well indeed, and I never thought you would come!’

  ‘You did not know me at all, my child, or you would not be in London today,’ he replied calmly.

  It was fortunate, since she was at a loss for an answer, that a diversion was just then created. Kitty perceived Lady Legerwood’s barouche, and desired Mr Westruther to pull up. He drew up alongside the barouche; greetings were exchanged, enquiries made after the progress of the convalescents; and by the time the curricle was again in motion the awkward moment had passed, and Kitty was able, quite naturally, to inaugurate a different topic of conversation. Mr Westruther permitted this; but when they drove out of the Park presently he referred again to his great-uncle. ‘In spite of this very gratifying intelligence, that his gout is paining him less, I find I cannot be entirely easy in my mind,’ he said. ‘However, I collect that you will shortly be returning to Arnside?’

  ‘I? No!’ Kitty said.

  He looked down at her, slightly frowning. ‘Surely you informed me that you had come to town for one month?’

  ‘Why, yes! But Meg has so very kindly invited me to remain with her for the present that I need not go home again. With little Edmund still so poorly, and Lady Legerwood being determined to take him to the seaside, Meg is quite in a fix, for she says that Margate always make her bilious, besides being shockingly flat at this season. So I am to remain, to bear her company, which is a piece of great good fortune for me.’

  ‘Does my uncle give his consent to his?’ he demanded.

  ‘Yes, and I believe I have to thank my dear, good Fish for it! Only fancy, Jack! Actually she persuaded him to send me a draft for twenty-five pounds! His gout must be very much better, I think: Fish says it is all due to a remedy which she discovered in some old household book! At all events, I was never more grateful for anything, because although Freddy is for ever begging me to let him be my banker, that I will not do!’

  ‘You astonish me!’ he said sardonically. ‘I had supposed him to have been franking you all this while.’

  ‘No, indeed!’ she cried. ‘How could you think such a thing? Uncle Matthew bestowed a very handsome sum on me, upon my betrothal!’

  ‘Handsome indeed, if it has paid for all your finery, my dear!’ he said dryly. He saw that she was looking startled, and laughed. ‘Never mind! But I wish you will go back to Arnside, Kitty. I believe you have been guilty of a great piece of folly in leaving my uncle in this way.’

  They had reached Lady Buckhaven’s house by this time, and Kitty was preparing to alight from the curricle. She paused. ‘Nonsense! Why did you laugh like that? It is true that Freddy has paid all my bills, but he has done it with the money Uncle Matthew gave me for the purpose!’

  ‘Oh, is that how it has been?’ said Mr Westruther gravely. ‘I begin to think I have underrated Freddy!’

  Fifteen

  Since Freddy, accompanied by his stammering friend, Mr Stonehouse, was dining in Berkeley Square that evening, before escorting both ladies to Almack’s, Miss Charing was easily able to find an opportunity of taking him apart, for the purpose of probing to its depths Mr Westruther’s strange remark. But Freddy, who had long foreseen that he would sooner or later be called upon to render an account of his stewardship, was prepared, and instantly confounded her by assuming all the air of one unjustly accused of dishonesty. He said that he had faithfully discharged, through his sister’s agency, all milliners’ and mantua-makers’ bills; that a small sum still remained in his possession; and that perhaps Kitty would wish him to hand this over to her? In her anxiety to disabuse his mind of its quite dreadful misapprehension, Kitty lost sight of the real purpose of her enquiry. She did once try to explain to him what this was, but as he only said severely that she was doing it rather too brown, and added, with awful irony, an assurance that his circumstances made it unnecessary for him to rob her, she was obliged to devote her energies to the task of smoothing his apparently ruffled sensibilities. ‘In fact,’ Fre
ddy told his sister, later in the evening, ‘brushed through the thing tolerably well! That is, as long as you don’t make a muff of it, Meg! Daresay she’ll ask you for a sight of the bills. Better say you gave ’em to me.’

  ‘Why should I have done that?’ she asked, willing but puzzled.

  ‘Dash it, you must be able to think of some reason!’ said Freddy, with asperity. ‘Seems to me no one but me can think of anything in this family! Getting to be devilish fatiguing. Even my father said he didn’t know how to—well, never mind that! You tell Kit I’m keeping the bills to show to the old gentleman. Come to think of it, shouldn’t be at all surprised if he asked to see ’em: sort of thing he would do!’

  ‘Well, it is to be hoped he does not,’ observed Meg practically. ‘Depend upon it, he would be as mad as fire. When do you mean to make your engagement known, Freddy? It seems so odd of you not to put an announcement in the Gazette! I am sure at least a dozen people must know of it!’

  ‘Can’t announce it till m’mother comes home from Margate,’ replied Freddy firmly. ‘Must give a dress-party! Season not begun; no one in town yet!’

  ‘You are the strangest creature! I declare, you will be well-served if Kitty takes Dolph instead of you!’

  ‘Well, she won’t.’

  ‘Much you know! My dear brother, Dolph veritably haunts us! It is occasioning a good deal of remark, let me tell you!’

  ‘Know all about that. You let Kit alone!’ said Freddy.

  ‘Oh, very well, but if you don’t take care she will fall into a scrape!’ Meg said, shrugging her pretty shoulders.

  However, when Freddy demanded what kind of a scrape Kitty could fall into, she was unable to think of one, and was obliged to refer in a mysterious manner to the unfortunate friendship with Miss Broughty and her relatives, hinting at dire, if unexplained, consequences. Freddy said, in a fair-minded way, that he thought the Broughtys a dashed nuisance. ‘What I mean is, encroaching! No saying where it will end. You remember that female m’mother was kind to in Bath? Rum touch that used to come and cry all over the lodging m’father took in Laura Place? Took m’mother the better part of a year to be rid of her.’

  ‘Good gracious, yes! Depend upon it, that is just what will happen with this Olivia! She will impose upon Kitty’s good nature in precisely the same way. But will Kitty listen to what I tell her? No! Oh, Freddy, that odious Mrs Scorton has invited her to dine in Hans Crescent, and she says she shall go, because she cannot bear to be thought proud!’

  ‘Lord, Meg, I should have thought you might have prevented her!’ exclaimed Freddy, quite disgusted. ‘Easy enough to have hatched up an engagement, and said you depended upon her to be at home that evening! I’ll tell you what it is: you’ve a deal more hair than wit!’

  ‘Oh, well!’ Meg said, looking a little conscious, ‘I could not do that, as it chances, for I am going out myself that evening. One of Buckhaven’s old aunts: I would not subject Kitty to her odious, quizzing ways for the world!’

  Freddy looked suspiciously at her, but she was rearranging her scarf, and did not meet his eyes. ‘Sounds to me like a hum,’ he said.

  ‘Good gracious, why should it be?’

  ‘Don’t know. Thing is, know you! Well, stands to reason! Bound to! However, Kit ain’t likely to get into a scrape, dining in Hans Crescent. Come to think of it, might serve pretty well. You ever seen those Scortons, Meg? Well, I have! Nothing but a parcel of vulgar dowds! Very likely to give Kit a distaste for the whole business. Don’t you go kicking up a dust!’

  So, on the appointed day, the Buckhaven town-coach conveyed Miss Charing to Hans Crescent; and when the coachman asked her at what hour she would wish him to call for her again, Mr Thomas Scorton, the son of the house, informed him that he would charge himself with the agreeable duty of conveying Miss Charing to Berkeley Square. She demurred a little, but was overborne, Mr Scorton telling her, with a wink, that they had a famous scheme arranged for the evening. She was obliged to acquiesce therefore, and to allow herself to be ushered into the house. Here she was met by Olivia, who led her upstairs to take off her cloak, chattering all the way. Kitty knew already that Mrs Broughty was spending a night at her own home, but she was scarcely prepared for the rest of Olivia’s news. Olivia, whose eyes were shining like stars, told her that her cousin Tom had been so obliging as to hire a box at the Opera House, for the masquerade, and that her dear, dear Aunt Matty had said that if they were all determined to enjoy a frolic she would escort them, for she knew what it was to be young, and in her day she had hugely loved a frisk of this nature.

  ‘And, oh, dear Miss Charing, was it dreadfully fast of me?—I wrote to your cousin the Chevalier, telling him that we hoped for the honour of your company, and asking him if he would go with us! And he is even now talking to my aunt in the drawing-room! Oh, have I done amiss?’

  ‘No, no, but—a masquerade! I am not dressed for a ball. And if it is a masquerade, should one not be dressed in character? I wish you had told me earlier, Olivia!’

  ‘Oh, it doesn’t signify! None of us mean to wear historical costumes, but only dominoes and masks, and I have procured a domino for you, my aunt warning me that very likely you would not be permitted to go with us, if Lady Buckhaven knew of it. She says that members of the high ton despise these masquerades amazingly. I knew you would not care for that! We shall be masked, of course, and no one will know us.’

  Kitty recollected that a mask and a domino had been her only disguise at the Pantheon masquerade, and was satisfied. She would have preferred not to have gone to a large ball under Mrs Scorton’s chaperonage; but she felt that she was perhaps refining too much upon trifles. A refusal on her part to go to the Opera House must necessarily break up the party, and spoil Olivia’s pleasure. She schooled her countenance to an expression of gratification, and secretly hoped that she would not be obliged to dance very frequently with Tom Scorton.

  As the two ladies descended the stairs to the drawing-room on the first floor, Olivia said, shyly, but as though sudden happiness made it impossible for her to resist a little gush of confidence: ‘Do you know, Miss Charing, it is the most absurd thing, but I fancied—that is, I had an apprehension—that something had occurred to vex the Chevalier? He had not visited us for such an age! At least, it was only ten days, of course, but I supposed—I was in the expectation—But it was all nonsense, for he was very glad to come tonight. You will say I am a goose!’

  Kitty, who was preceding her down the stairs, looked back, saw her blushing, and said laughing: ‘No, but do, pray, tell me! Have you fallen in love with Camille? I could see, upon his first setting eyes on you, that he was very much struck, I assure you! When must I wish you happy?’

  Discomposed, Olivia turned away her face, faltering: ‘Do not—! It would be so very unbecoming in me—! He has not spoken, and if I thought that he might do so, lately I have been afraid, when there seemed to be no continued observance, that I had imagined the whole, or—or perhaps that he felt I was not grand enough!’

  ‘If he is such a coxcomb as that, you would be very well rid of him!’ Kitty replied.

  ‘No, no, how can you say such a thing? So perfectly the gentleman! Indeed, I am fully conscious of the difference in our stations—scarcely dared to entertain the hope that his affection was animated towards me, as mine, dear Miss Charing, was animated towards him!’

  They had by this time reached the landing, and there was no opportunity for further discussion. Kitty, with the uncomfortable recollection in her mind of having on a number of occasions observed her cousin dancing attendance on Lady Maria Yalding, could not but be glad of it. Olivia opened the door into the drawing-room, a babel of voices smote their ears, and Kitty entered to find the rest of the party already assembled. It so happened that the Chevalier was seated in a chair that faced the door, and as Kitty paused for an instant, looking for her hostess in what seemed to be a crowd of persons, he glance
d up, his eyes alighting upon Olivia. There was no mistaking the ardent expression that sprang to them, or the tenderness of the smile which touched his lips. The next moment he was on his feet, and was bowing to his cousin. She smiled, and nodded to him, and moved forward to greet Mrs Scorton, who had surged up from the sofa, her bulk formidably arrayed in purple satin, and upon her crimped locks a turban embellished with roses and feathers.

  No one could have doubted Mrs Scorton’s good-nature; and very few would have denied her vulgarity. She shook Kitty warmly by the hand, embarrassed her by thanking her for her condescension in coming to Hans Crescent, and said, with a jolly laugh: ‘Olivia would have it I should not invite you, but “Nonsense, my dear,” I said, “I warrant Miss Charing is not so high in the instep she won’t enjoy a frolic as well as anyone!” I daresay Almack’s may be very well, though I don’t know, for I was never there in my life, but what I say is it sounds mighty stiff and dull to me, and I was always one for a little fun out of the ordinary, as I’ll be bound you are too! Now I must introduce everyone to you, and we can be comfortable. Not that I need to introduce my girls, and I hope I’m not such a simpleton as to present your own cousin to you! But this is Mr Malham, my dear, that’s promised to Sukey here, as you may have heard. A fine thing to have Sukey going off before her sister, ain’t it? Not that I want to lose my Lizzie, as well she knows, but we all roast her about it—just funning, of course! And this is Mr Bottlesford. We call him Bottles.’

  Kitty knew that she was not going to enjoy the party. As she curtsied slightly to both gentlemen, Mrs Scorton outlined for her benefit the plan for the evening. After dinner, she said, they would play at lottery-tickets, or some other jolly, noisy game, for an hour, and then drive to the Opera House. ‘And Tom shall escort you home in good time, I promise you, for I don’t mean to let any of you girls stay much after midnight, and so I warn you, for although I’m as fond as you are of a masquerade it don’t do to be lingering on when things get a trifle too free, as very likely they will.’

 
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