Cotillion, p.25
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       Cotillion, p.25

           Georgette Heyer
 

  After this she begged Kitty to take a chair near the fire, and Miss Scorton, who had been much impressed by as much of Lady Buckhaven’s house as she had been privileged to see upon her one and only visit to it, began to ply her astonished guest with questions which were as artless as they were impertinent. She wanted to know how many saloons there were in the house, how many beds her ladyship could make up, how many covers could be laid in her dining-room, how many footmen she employed, and whether she gave grand parties every night, and had a French maid to wait upon her. There seemed to be no end to her interrogation, but after about twenty minutes she was interrupted by the dinner-bell, and the company trooped downstairs to the dining-room.

  Here they were joined by the master of the house, of whose existence Kitty had previously been unaware. He was quite as stout as his wife, but by no means as good-natured. When he shook hands with Kitty, he grunted something which she might, if she chose, understand to be a welcome; and his wife explained, as though it were a very good joke, that he disliked parties, and never joined them except to eat his dinner. With these encouraging words, she directed Kitty to the chair at his right hand, disposed her own ample form at the foot of the table, beckoned the Chevalier to sit beside her, and said that she hoped all her guests had brought good appetites with them.

  They were certainly needed. Mrs Scorton was a lavish housewife, and prided herself upon the table she kept. When the soup was removed, the manservant, assisted by a page and two female servants, set a boiled leg of lamb with spinach before his master, a roast sirloin of beef before his mistress, and filled up all the remaining space on the board with dishes of baked fish, white collops, fricassée of chicken, two different vegetables, and several sauce-boats. Everyone but Mr Scorton, who applied his energies to the tasks of carving and of eating, talked a great deal; and Tom Scorton, who was seated beside Kitty, entertained her with a long and boring story of a horse he had bought, and subsequently sold at a very good price, and without a warranty, upon the discovery that the animal was for ever throwing out a splint.

  When Mrs Scorton had unavailingly pressed everyone to take another helping, the dishes were removed, and the second course was laid on the table. This consisted of a roast chicken, some pigeons, a large apple pie, an omelet, and a chafing-dish piled high with pancakes. After that, a dessert was set out, which included, besides what seemed to Kitty every imaginable variety of cake and sweetmeat, a large assortment of preserved fruits, and two dishes full of roasted chestnuts. Observing that Miss Charing seemed to fancy nothing but a French olive, Mrs Scorton begged her to take a meringue, or a slice of Savoy cake; and Eliza asked her how many courses Lady Buckhaven in general sat down to. When she learned that her ladyship contented herself with a very much lighter diet, she exclaimed at it; and Mrs Scorton blessed herself to think that she should keep a better table than a baroness.

  After this passage, the company returned to the drawing-room, where a card-table had already been set out; and as soon as the box containing all the fish had been found, everyone but Mr Scorton, who had retired to some fastness of his own, settled down to a game of lottery-tickets. Since the consumption of dinner had occupied nearly two hours, the excitements of the game had scarcely had time to pall before it was decided that it was time to leave for the Opera House. Kitty was provided with a loo-mask, and a cherry-red domino, and accorded the seat of honour in her hostess’s carriage. As nine persons had to be conveyed into town in two carriages, she was uncomfortably crowded, but this disadvantage was more than compensated for by the reflection that she had not been condemned to travel in the landaulet with Eliza and Mr Bottlesford, both of whom enjoyed local reputations as wits of the first order, and were consequently embarrassing companions. Having been seated at dinner on the opposite side of the table to her cousin, she had had ample opportunity of observing him during the interminable meal, and it had struck her forcibly that he was ill-at-ease. His gaiety seemed mechanical, and an indefinable air of trouble hung about him. She determined that by hook or by crook she would contrive to engage him in a tête-à-tête before the evening was out. The suspicion that he had come to London with the intention of winning a rich bride insensibly grew upon her; and she hardly knew whether most to blame her own imprudence in having introduced him to Olivia Broughty, or his mercenary ambitions, which made it possible for him to pursue Lady Maria when his heart was plainly lost to Olivia.

  Upon her first entrance to the Opera House, which she happened never to have visited before, Kitty was quite dazzled by its magnificence. It was adorned with a painted ceiling, and lit by clusters of candles in crystal chandeliers. Besides a gallery, and a roomy pit, there were four tiers of boxes, hung with crimson draperies, and their fronts tastefully decorated in white and gold. The stage, where the ball was already in full swing, was large, extending past the first six boxes; and to add to the festivity of the scene, a fanciful backcloth had been let down, so that English country dances, Viennese waltzes, French quadrilles and cotillions were all danced against a rich eastern background. Although it was some time before midnight, the house was already crowded, and every costume from the simple domino to the magnificence of Tudor doublets was to be seen. Nearly everyone was masked, but bold-eyed damsels, and a number of gentlemen, had dispensed with this disguise, and were behaving with what, to country-bred Kitty, seemed a strange lack of decorum.

  By means which he was only too ready to impart to anyone who could be induced to listen to him, Tom Scorton had procured a box on the lowest tier, a cunning stroke on which he invited his mother and her guests to congratulate him, but which Kitty soon discovered to be an unenviable position. They were much exposed to the advances of beaux on the look-out for trim figures that gave promise of youth and beauty behind the masks; and as a number of these gentlemen were slightly foxed they were difficult to repulse. Neither of the Misses Scorton appeared in the least discomposed by this nuisance, Eliza going so far as to bandy witticisms with a pertinacious buck, improbably attired as Charles I; and Susan consenting to dance the boulanger with a dashing Harlequin. The Chevalier soon detached Olivia from the rest of the party, and led her on to the floor; and Kitty was obliged to bestow her hand upon Tom for a set of quadrilles which was just then forming. When they presently returned to the box, they found it deserted, and Tom said cheerfully that they might depend upon it that his mother had gone off to the Saloon, in search of refreshment. To be left unchaperoned at a gathering of this nature was not at all what Kitty had bargained for, and she began to feel uncomfortable, and to wish that she had had the resolution to decline the evening’s treat. However, Susan and Mr Malham soon joined them, which made her feel less conspicuous; and she tried her best to join in their ecstasies over the ball.

  It was indeed an experience she thought she might have enjoyed very well under such protection as Freddy or Jack would have afforded her, for she had never seen anything comparable to it before, and could have sat happily enough, watching the glittering, shifting throng, had she been assured that no questing buck would dare to accost her. But however innocent she might be she was no fool, and a very little time sufficed to convince her that Opera House masquerades were not commonly frequently by ladies of quality. Conscience-stricken, she reflected that Freddy had been quite right when he had said that intimacy with Olivia’s relations would lead to undesirable results. This was one of them; and although she was far too warm-hearted to regret having befriended Olivia, she did regret that she had allowed herself to be drawn into the Scorton set. She was aware, for the first time, of the cogency of Meg’s arguments, and was much inclined to think that she owed her shatterbrained hostess an apology.

  It was some time before anything more was seen of Olivia and the Chevalier; and when they did reappear it at once struck Kitty that they did not look as though they were enjoying the masquerade. Where the mask ended, Olivia’s cheek was seen to be very pale, and the Chevalier’s smiling mouth was oddly tight-lipped. Olivia at o
nce sank into a chair at the back of the box, saying in a disjointed way that the heat was insufferable; and the Chevalier, after a moment’s hesitation, solicited Kitty’s hand for the next waltz. But when he presently led her towards the dancing-floor, his air of gaiety was so forced that she said impulsively: ‘Should you dislike it, Camille, if we strolled in the corridor, instead of dancing? I have had no opportunity to speak to you all the evening—and Olivia is quite right! It is dreadfully hot here.’

  He said mechanically: ‘A volonté!’ and took her out of the crowded auditorium into the comparative coolness of the corridor. Here they found two chairs placed against the wall, and, for the moment, unoccupied. As she seated herself, Kitty said: ‘I wish you will tell me, Camille! Has anything happened to vex you?’

  He dropped his head in his hands for an instant, and replied, as though the words were wrenched from him: ‘I was mad to have come! But the temptation—overmastering! I desired—oh, à corps perdu! to yield to it! Madness! C’en est fait de moi!’

  Started, she exclaimed: ‘Good God, what can you mean?’

  He stripped off his mask with an impatient movement, and ran a hand across his brow, saying with a shaken laugh: ‘I must suppose that you, my little cousin, know the truth! It is not possible that I should win the hand of that angel. I am a villain to have permitted the affair to march so far! For me, it is adieu paniers!’

  ‘You know, Camille, it is true that I am half a Frenchwoman,’ said Kitty, quite bewildered, ‘but I never learned to speak the language with the least fluency, and I must own that I don’t perfectly understand what they may signify.’

  ‘Farewell hope!’ uttered the Chevalier.

  Kitty found this dramatic phrase so strongly reminiscent of Miss Fishguard in her more sentimental moments that she was nearly betrayed into a giggle. After a short struggle with herself, she asked bluntly: ‘Why?’

  He replied, with a hopeless gesture: ‘I have been permitted a glimpse of paradise! It is not for me!’

  ‘I do wish, Camille, that you will speak more plainly!’ said Kitty, rather exasperated. ‘If you mean that Olivia is paradise, and that it is she who is not for you, pray why should you say such a thing? Have you quarrelled with her?’

  ‘A thousand times no!’ he declared vehemently. ‘Would I quarrel with an angel from heaven? The very thought is a blasphemy!’

  ‘Yes, very true, but Olivia is not an angel from heaven,’ Kitty pointed out. ‘Is it that her lack of fortune makes her ineligible, or that you fear she would not be acceptable to your family? I own that Mrs Broughty is a dreadful woman, but—’

  ‘It is I who cannot be acceptable to Mrs Broughty!’ he interrupted.

  A suspicion that he had been drinking crossed her mind. She looked anxiously at him, and said: ‘Come, you are talking nonsense, cousin! Perhaps you are not as wealthy as that odious Sir Henry Gosford, but I am persuaded, from what Olivia has told me, that Mrs Broughty is inclined to look upon you with the utmost complacence!’

  He gave a short laugh. ‘Without doubt! C’est hors de propos, ma chère cousine! It is the Chevalier she looks upon with complacence. You, of all people, must know that there is no Chevalier!’

  She was now more than ever convinced that he had been drinking deeply, and said in some concern: ‘Camille, I think you don’t know what you are saying! No Chevalier? But—are not you the Chevalier d’Evron?’

  He looked intently at her, and made a fatalistic gesture. ‘I am in your hands, in effect! But you are my cousin! I thought—it did not seem to me possible that you should not know the truth. I have been grateful to you for your silence. When the so-obliging Mr Westruther told me that you desired to renew your acquaintance with me—eh, that was a moment indeed! But always I am a gamester: it is my profession. Impossible to refuse the offered introduction! I came to Madame la Baronne’s house, risking all upon one throw of the dice.’ A hint of his dancing smile appeared in his face; he said ruefully: ‘Ah, I will be frank, my dear cousin! Trusting in—in—oh, in mes agréments! You were silent: I believed I had once more succeeded! Quel fat! You did not know the truth!’

  ‘My guardian has never talked to me of my mother’s family,’ she faltered. ‘I thought, when Mr Westruther brought you to Berkeley Square—that is, I did not question—’

  ‘My credentials? But had you known that our family is not a noble one—? Would you have betrayed me?’

  ‘Oh, no!’ she said quickly. ‘How could I do such a thing? But—but why, Camille? What can it signify? Jack—Mr Westruther—has no title, but he is at the very top of the ton, I assure you!’

  ‘Ah, he has birth, ma petite! For me, a title is a necessity. I shall not deceive you: I am, as well Mr Westruther knows, an adventurer! I have said: I am in your hands!’

  This dramatic finish to his speech went wide to the mark. Ignoring it, Kitty said: ‘Jack knows?’

  ‘Be sure! He is no fool, that one! Also, he is dangerous. I have had the effrontery to love the object of his desire, you must understand. With my rich widow, he wishes me all success: ah, bah! what do I care, when I have seen that angel? I shall love her à jamais, but I know well she is not for me!’

  He sank his head in his hands as he spoke, and so did not perceive the effect of his remarks upon Miss Charing. Much that she had not previously understood now became plain to her. Opening and shutting her fan, and staring with unseeing eyes at the medallions painted on its leaf, she wondered, in a curiously detached way, how it came about that her most pronounced emotion was a feeling of disgust. ‘Jack wishes to marry Olivia?’ she said slowly.

  ‘Marry! No!’ he returned. ‘Pardon! You know him well! You have perhaps a kindness for him! I should not have allowed myself to speak!’

  She remembered remarks made by Olivia which had puzzled her. Drawing an audible breath, she said: ‘It does not signify. I understand you, I suppose. Jack wishes her to be his mistress. And you—loving her as you say you do!—will permit this?’

  He raised his head, saying hotly: ‘What can I do? Do you imagine that madame her mother would for one little instant entertain my suit, if she knew the truth? That I have neither title nor fortune! That my father is the proprietor of a maison de jeu—what you call a gaming-house!’

  ‘Good God!’ said Kitty, rather faintly. ‘D-does Olivia know this?’

  ‘She knows all! Could you believe me capable of deceiving one whom I worship? Of stealing her from her mother à la derobée? No! I am not so infamous! I do not conceal from you that I came to England an adventurer! It is known that if one is of—of bonne tenue, bien né, riche, and above all French—c’est drôle, ça!—one may be bien-venu in London! To be French, that bestows upon one a cachet!—It is known, then, that with these qualities one may do very well in England.’ He spread out his hands. ‘De plus, in my childhood I lived here. I know England; I can speak the language with fluency. Perhaps I have not always the right idiom, or the accent, but that, chère Kitty, is regarded by the English as fort attrayant!’

  ‘Yes, but I don’t understand. Did you—did you come to England to marry an heiress?’ asked Kitty wonderingly.

  ‘To seek my fortune, let us say.’

  ‘Lady Maria? Camille, was it to pay your addresses to her that you came?’

  ‘Ah, no! My meeting with Lady Maria was a coup de bonheur. Naturally, I am interested in ladies of large fortune, but of her existence I did not know until I was presented to her.’

  This frank exposition of his aims very much shocked Miss Charing. She uttered a protest. ‘Oh, pray do not—! Surely you cannot mean to offer for Lady Maria! How could you bear to be married to her? I cannot believe it of you!’

  ‘Marriage!’ he said, smiling. ‘My dear little cousin, do you think that that would be permitted? If she would consent—eh bien, one must resign oneself! But I find her a woman insufferably proud, and I think she could not support the mortific
ation of having so plainly encouraged the advances of one who is not—how shall I say?—a chevalier d’honneur, but a chevalier d’industrie.’

  She gazed at him uncomprehendingly. ‘No, indeed! I think she would die of shame! But—’

  ‘She would wish the so-fascinating Chevalier to depart from England without scandal, is it not so? Well, that could be arranged.’

  She was by this time so much shocked and distressed that she could only find voice enough to say: ‘Olivia knows this? You have told her?’

  ‘I have told her!’ he said, with a groan. ‘But just now! It was necessary: I could not continue—! You must understand that I have for her a passion, a devotion, which makes it impossible that it should deceive her!’

  ‘Oh, I wish to heaven I had never made you known to her!’ Kitty exclaimed. ‘This is dreadful! I perceived, when she came back to the box, that she was suffering from some agitation, but that it could be as bad as this I had not the least apprehension!’

  ‘Believe me,’ he said earnestly, ‘it was not à dessein that I engaged her affection! When first I saw her I was carried beyond myself—I did not consider—I had never imagined to myself that I should ever meet one who so exactly fulfilled the dreams a man of sensibility must make for himself! Bécasse! I should have acted with resolution. I allowed myself to be transported. When I tore myself away, I believed I was the only sufferer. But when, after so many days of misery, I received her billet, and yielded to the temptation of seeing her again, it was made plain to me that I had wounded her. She asked me, as you did, if I was troubled. What would you? I told her that I was not what she thought me to be, but a gamester, one on whom she would never be permitted to bestow her hand! She saw that there could be no hope for either of us. You may say that we have received our death-blows!’

  She was easily able to refrain from making any such remark. In a tone of considerable censure, she said: ‘Good God, Camille, how could you distress her so? Surely you would have done better to have held your tongue—to have made up your mind not to see her again?’

 
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