Cotillion, p.26
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       Cotillion, p.26

           Georgette Heyer
 

  ‘I could not!’ he replied. ‘Would you have had me allow her think that she had bestowed her heart upon a mere coquet?’

  ‘Yes, indeed I would!’ said Kitty. ‘I daresay she would very soon have forgotten all about you. But now—! Oh, what a shocking tangle it is! I don’t know what to say! I wish you will take me back to the box!’

  He rose at once. ‘I will do so. And you? I am at your mercy!’

  She said crossly: ‘If you mean, shall I tell the world that you are an—an impostor, no, I shall not! You must perceive how reluctant I must be to see my own cousin exposed in such a way. In fact, I expect you were very well-aware of that when you disclosed the truth to me!’

  He replied, with a faint smile: ‘C’est ce qui saute aux yeux, enfin!’

  ‘You are quite abominable!’ she told him.

  He began to walk with her down the corridor. ‘I know it, alas!’

  She was too much mortified to make any reply. They proceeded in silence for a moment or two, and might have exchanged no further remarks had not a most unwelcome sight suddenly presented itself. Strolling towards them, a masked lady in a black domino on his arm, his own mask dangling by its strings from his hand, was Mr Westruther. ‘Oh, good God!’ Kitty exclaimed involuntarily. ‘Put your mask on, for heaven’s sake, Camille!’

  ‘It is too late: he has seen me,’ he responded quietly. ‘It is no matter: he will not recognize you. Do not speak!’

  The advancing couple halted before them. ‘My very dear friend the Chevalier!’ said Mr Westruther. ‘Now, what an agreeable surprise!’ His penetrating eyes ran over Kitty’s form, and remained fixed on her face. His brows lifted a little, and to her annoyance she knew herself to be blushing. ‘Dear me!’ he said, a note of amusement in his voice. ‘May I hazard a guess, or would that be indiscreet?’

  The Chevalier returned a light answer; but Kitty was staring at the lady on Mr Westruther’s arm. She had untied the strings of her black domino, and it fell apart to reveal a gown of lilac silk and gauze which Kitty knew well. The discovery that Mr Westruther had brought her cousin Meg clandestinely to the masquerade seemed to her to set the crowning touch to an evening of unalleviated mortification. She lost her temper. ‘Indiscreet? No, how should it be?’ she said, with unusual asperity. ‘To be sure, it is quite a family-party! For goodness’ sake, Meg, keep your domino closely tied, if you don’t wish to be recognized! I daresay half London must know that dreadful lilac dress, for nothing that Freddy, or Mallow, or I can say to you serves to convince you that it is not at all becoming to you!’

  ‘Kitty!’ gasped Meg, clutching Mr Westruther’s arm. ‘Good God, what can have possessed you to come to this place? It is most improper in you!’

  ‘I am sure that if you feel no scruple in coming I need not!’ returned Kitty swiftly. ‘I, after all, came under the protection of Mrs Scorton!’

  ‘Fine protection!’ said Meg, with a little angry titter.

  ‘Very true, but better than none!’ flashed Kitty. ‘Nor did I tell lies about dining with aunts!’

  ‘You did! You said you were dining in Hans Crescent!’

  ‘It was the truth! I did dine there, and I hadn’t the least notion this was intended!’

  The Chevalier, considerably alarmed by these signs of brewing storm, tried at this point to intervene, saying: ‘Ma chère cousine, we must return to our box, or Mrs Scorton will become anxious!’

  Neither lady paid any heed to this foolish interruption. Meg said: ‘Let me tell you that I am under the protection of my own cousin!’

  ‘Fine protection!’ instantly replied Kitty.

  Mr Westruther began to laugh. ‘End of Round 1!’ he said. ‘Largely cross-and-jostle work, though both opponents appeared full of gaiety, ready to sport their canvases. We shall see some flush hits in the next round, Chevalier.’

  ‘How dare you?’ exclaimed Meg furiously. ‘I think, of all the odious people—’

  ‘No, no, my love, you must not start sparring with me! I am your second!’ said Mr Westruther.

  ‘I beg of you, my cousin, only consider!’ said the Chevalier. ‘Already we attract notice!’

  ‘I am perfectly ready to return to Mrs Scorton, I assure you.’

  ‘What a spoil-sport you are, Chevalier!’ drawled Mr Westruther. ‘Mere flourishing so far! We have not yet arrived at the lilac gown, which I take to be the crux of the matter. Come now, Meg, rattle in!’

  But this mocking encouragement had the effect of turning his principal into a stiff figure of outraged propriety. ‘Pray take me back to our own box!’ said Meg, in freezing accents. ‘We are keeping dear Kitty from what I am persuaded must be a most agreeable party. I am myself returning to Berkeley Square in a very few minutes, but no doubt Mrs Scorton will convey you there when the masquerade is over, Kitty.’

  She then swept a dignified curtsy, took Mr Westruther’s arm again, and walked away with him down the corridor.

  A good deal concerned, the Chevalier began to express his contrition at having been imprudent enough to have removed his mask. Kitty cut him short, saying that it did not signify; and in silence they went back to Mrs Scorton’s box.

  The next half hour passed for Kitty like a species of nightmare. She was obliged for civility’s sake to dance several times, but the masquerade was fast developing into a romp, and, as though to make matters even more disagreeable, two total strangers had been added to the party, and were contributing their mites to its success by flirting in an inebriated and very ungenteel way with the Misses Scorton. Their sallies were received with shrieks of mirth, and playful raps across the knuckles from furled fans, and the only person, besides Kitty herself, who seemed to deprecate their inclusion in the party was Mr Malham, who several times informed Kitty that he had a very good mind to call that fellow in a Spanish costume to book. Since the fellow in question was behaving extremely freely with Miss Susan Scorton, Kitty could only be surprised that he did not do it. She was herself subjected to a good deal of annoyance; and since her cousin had once more spirited Olivia away from the box, and Mrs Scorton, much flushed, and refreshing herself with sips of champagne, took it all as a very good joke, she felt herself to be wholly unprotected. She excused herself from waltzing with Tom Scorton, and, when the rest of the party surged out of the box to take the floor, was thankful to find herself alone, Mrs Scorton having gone off with Eliza, to pin up her daughter’s torn flounce. She withdrew to a chair at the back of the box, trying to compose her disordered nerves, but was startled, a few minutes later, by feeling a touch on her shoulder. Such had been the experiences of this disastrous evening that she uttered a cry, and shrank away from the hand. A familiar, and most welcome, voice smote her ears. ‘No, really, Kit!’ it said. ‘No need to screech! Only me!’

  ‘Freddy!’ she cried, turning sharply in her chair. ‘Oh, how thankful I am! How in the world did you know I was here?’

  ‘Happened to be in Berkeley Square when Meg’s coachman took her off,’ he replied. ‘Said young Scorton meant to bring you home. Didn’t like it above half, so I took a hack to Hans Crescent. Thought I’d bring you home myself. Servant said you wasn’t there. So I saw old Scorton—very rum touch! He told me where you were; told me the number of the box. So I came to fetch you away. Thing is, Kit—not the thing!’

  ‘Oh, Freddy, I know it!’ she said, clasping his hand between both of hers. ‘Pray believe that I would never have consented to have come had I the smallest notion how it would be! But what could I do, when it was all arranged? It has been so very dreadful! You do not know the half! Will Mrs Scorton be offended if you take me home? I would give anything to escape from this vulgar place!’

  ‘Don’t signify if she is,’ he replied, patting her shoulder in a soothing way. ‘No business to bring you here! You leave it to me!’

  ‘Oh, yes!’ she sighed gratefully. ‘You will know just how to do!’

&nb
sp; She was perfectly right. Upon Mrs Scorton’s reappearance, she found herself confronted, not by the fool of his family, but by the Honourable Frederick Standen, a Pink of the Pinks, who knew to a nicety how to blend courtesy with hauteur, and who informed her, with exquisite politeness, that he rather fancied his cousin was tired, and would like to be taken home. One of the uninvited guests, entering the box in Eliza’s wake, ventured on a warm sally, found himself being inspected from head to foot through a quizzing-glass, and stammered an apology.

  The eye, hideously magnified by the glass, continued to stare at him for an unnerving moment. ‘Ah, just so!’ said Mr Standen, letting the glass fall at last. ‘Come, Kit! Your very obedient, ma’am!’

  He allowed his betrothed only time enough to utter a civil word of gratitude for a delightful party, and then bore her away, saying, as he shut the door of the box: ‘Obliged to take you home in a hack, Kit! Nothing for it!’

  ‘You are welcome to take me home in a wheelbarrow!’ she assured him.

  ‘Wouldn’t do at all!’ said Mr Standen decidedly. ‘Sort of thing that would be bound to set people’s backs up. Besides, haven’t got a wheelbarrow!’

  She gave a shaken laugh. ‘Oh, Freddy, how can you be so absurd, when you are so wise?’

  Much struck, he said: ‘You think I’m wise? Me?’

  ‘Of course I do! You always know just what one should do, and if only I had attended to you, when you warned me what would come of it, if I allowed myself to be drawn into poor Olivia’s set, I should not have fallen into this scrape. Are you very much displeased with me, Freddy?’

  ‘No, no! Not your fault! Just not up to snuff!’ he assured her.

  ‘You are a great deal too kind to me!’ she said, pressing his arm. ‘Indeed I am sorry, and so very grateful to you for rescuing me! I was in a flat despair! Oh, but Freddy, I could not help wishing you had been present at that dreadful dinner-party! Only, if you had been, and we had exchanged glances, I know I must have gone into whoops, so perhaps it is as well you were not! I sat beside Mr Scorton, and he barely spoke a word, but ate and ate, until his face shone, and I don’t think he could speak!’

  ‘Told you he was a rum touch,’ remarked Freddy. ‘Able to speak by the time I arrived, though. Queer set of company, wasn’t it? Who was that fellow I set down just now?’

  ‘I haven’t a notion, and I doubt if the Scortons have either, for he was not of our party at the start of the evening. And I must say, Freddy, you did it beautifully! It was almost enough to make up for all the rest!’

  ‘Very happy to have been of service!’ murmured Mr Standen, gratified. ‘Fellow been annoying you?’

  ‘He was quite odious, but no, it wasn’t that!’

  ‘Something else?’ said Mr Standen encouragingly.

  Kitty nodded, biting her lip. ‘Yes, but I think perhaps I should not speak of it, even to you. I am in such a fix, and don’t know what to do!’

  ‘Don’t do anything until we’ve got a hack!’ recommended Freddy. ‘Tell me then!’

  Kitty was glad to follow the first part of this eminently sensible advice; but when she sat beside Freddy, in the darkness and mustiness of the hackney-coach, and he bade her tell him the whole, she hesitated.

  ‘Much better do so,’ he said. ‘Might be able to help you.’

  ‘Freddy—it is most secret!’

  ‘Well, dash it, Kit, you don’t suppose I’m going to blab it out to anyone, do you?’

  She sighed. ‘No. Of course you would not. The thing is, my cousin, the—my cousin Camille was there tonight.’

  ‘Thought very likely he would be.’

  ‘Yes, but—Freddy, what do you know of him?’

  ‘Don’t know anything,’ replied Freddy firmly. ‘Seems a very pleasant fellow!’

  ‘Has Jack said anything to you about him?’

  ‘Said he was your cousin. Told us so one evening at Meg’s place. Must remember that, Kit!’

  ‘Is that all Jack knows?’

  ‘Lord, how should I—Dash it, Kit, I’m not going to answer a lot of questions, when I don’t know what the deuce you’ve got in your head! Silly thing to do! Bound to land myself in the basket! What’s Jack been saying to you?’

  ‘Nothing! It was Camille himself, who—who made a—a shocking disclosure to me this evening. Freddy, it seems that he is not a Chevalier at all, but a—I must say, an adventurer!’

  ‘Is he, though?’ said Freddy. ‘Thought he was an ivory-turner myself. Comes to the same thing.’

  ‘Good God, did you know this?’ she exclaimed.

  ‘Didn’t know it. Just a notion I took into my head. Fact is, asked m’father to discover who he was. No wish to distress you, Kit, but he ain’t known at the Embassy, and this precious uncle of his don’t seem to exist. At least, very likely he may have a dozen uncles, but there ain’t a Marquis amongst ’em. No need to get into a taking over that! Don’t have to have Marquises in the family! Quite respectable not to. Well, what I mean is, think of us! We haven’t any!’

  ‘But I cannot think that Camille is at all respectable,’ said Kitty, in a small voice. ‘I very much fear, Freddy, that he is a gamester!’

  ‘He is?’ said Freddy, rather pleased. ‘Just what I said! Tell you so?’

  ‘Yes. He said also that his father runs a hell!’

  ‘No, does he? Shouldn’t wonder if it was in the Palais Royale,’ said Freddy knowledgeably. ‘Find all the best ones there, so m’father tells me.’

  Taken aback, Kitty said: ‘But, Freddy, is it not very shocking?’

  ‘Well, it ain’t precisely what one wants in the family,’ admitted Freddy. ‘Dashed awkward, if your uncle ran a hell in London, of course, but he ain’t at all likely to, and if only we can hit on a scheme to get rid of this Camille of yours—not that I’ve anything against the fellow, except that it’s as plain as a pikestaff he might easily become a deuced nuisance—we shall be all right and tight.’

  ‘I have the greatest apprehension that there will be some dreadful scandal!’ said Kitty. ‘I see that I must tell you the whole. Freddy, it appears that he has fallen desperately in love with Olivia!’

  ‘No harm in that,’ said Freddy. ‘In fact, good thing! Don’t mind telling you, Kit, that it’s his dangling after the Yalding widow that made me take fright. Bound to lead to trouble! Needn’t think old Annerwick won’t make a lot of dashed awkward enquiries, because that’s just what he will do. Anyone would!’

  ‘Oh, Freddy, I fear you do not understand!’ said Kitty unhappily, and began, in a halting voice, to tell him just what the Chevalier had said to her.

  He listened to her attentively, but his comment, at the end of her recital, was not just what she had expected. ‘Do you mean to tell me the fellow said all this to you, Kit?’ he demanded incredulously. ‘Well, if that don’t beat the Dutch! Why the deuce couldn’t he have kept his mouth shut? French! Never knew such a set of gabsters!’

  ‘I must own, I did rather think that myself,’ she confessed. ‘Indeed, I was aghast to learn that he had disclosed the truth to Olivia.’

  ‘I should think you would be!’ he agreed. ‘No doing anything with such a gudgeon! Think she’ll spread the tale?’

  ‘Oh, no, I am persuaded she would not! But only think of the pain she must have suffered!’

  ‘No use thinking of that. Got enough to think about on our own account. Nothing for it but to pack the fellow off to France again, Kit. Dashed if I’ll have him causing you embarrassment! Devilish unpleasant situation, if the truth leaked out, y’know.’

  ‘Oh, yes, and how shocking it would be if poor Lady Maria were to be taken-in, when I know the whole, and should have warned her! Only, how can I, Freddy?’

  Rather alarmed, he said: ‘Lord, no! Now, for God’s sake, Kit, don’t you do anything buffle-headed! Only make bad worse! Got to think of a way to be rid of
him. Daresay I shall hit on something.’

  ‘Would he go, do you suppose, if you threatened him with exposure?’ she asked doubtfully.

  ‘Not unless he’s a regular flat, which we know he ain’t,’ he replied. ‘Must know I wouldn’t do any such thing! Nice scandal to start in the family!’

  ‘Would—would Jack?’ she asked. ‘That is what I can’t help being afraid of! I—I fancy Jack may have a good reason for wishing Camille otherwhere.’

  ‘Fellow tell you that too?’ demanded Freddy. ‘Well, upon my soul!’

  ‘Is it true, Freddy?’ asked Kitty shyly.

  ‘No use asking me. For one thing, dashed improper! And for another, wouldn’t tell you, if I knew, which I don’t. Got something better to do than to pry into what don’t concern me.’

  ‘Well,’ said Kitty, with fortitude, ‘I have learnt a great deal since I came to town, and I think very likely it is true.’

  ‘It don’t signify whether it is or whether it ain’t. Point is, Jack won’t expose your cousin any more than I will. Coming it a trifle too strong! What I mean is, if he rumbled the fellow’s lay, what the devil did he mean by presenting him to you, let alone a lot of other people? Yes, by Jove! Brought him to m’sister’s house! Spiked his own guns, Kit! He’s a bruising rider, but he don’t over-face his horses. He’ll keep his mouth shut.’

  ‘Freddy, if he knew—or even suspected—that my cousin was not what he pretends to be, why—why did he bring him to Berkeley Square?’

  ‘Because it’s the sort of thing he would do!’ said Freddy tartly. ‘Same reason he tried to hoax me into going down to Arnside. Got a dashed queer sense of humour.’

  ‘Yes, I see,’ said Kitty. ‘I expect he wanted to punish me a little. Why didn’t you tell me what you suspected, Freddy?’

  ‘Because I ain’t a French gabster!’ said Freddy.

  Sixteen

  Upon their arrival in Berkeley Square, they were admitted into the house by the porter. Freddy was just about to take formal leave of his betrothed when his sister, attired in a flounced and frilled dressing-gown of rose-pink silk, appeared at the head of the staircase, and began to deliver herself of a dignified request to Miss Charing to come to her bedroom before she retired to her own. As the speech had been carefully composed and conned, it was a pity that the greater part of it remained unuttered. Her ladyship, perceiving Kitty’s escort, broke off in sudden dismay, and clutched the banister-rail. ‘F-Freddy?’ she said faintly.

 
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