Cotillion, p.28
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       Cotillion, p.28

           Georgette Heyer
 

  ‘Indeed, I would much rather die!’ Olivia said earnestly. ‘The very thought of it casts me into such despair that I am sure it would be better for me to be dead! But Mama says that he cannot live for ever, and in the meantime I may have as many lovers as I please, provided only that I am discreet. But I do not want many lovers!’

  ‘Good God, I should hope not!’ exclaimed Kitty.

  ‘I shall never love anyone but my Camille!’ said Olivia, showing an alarming tendency to dissolve into tears.

  ‘For heaven’s sake, Olivia, don’t start to cry!’ begged Kitty. ‘Recollect, it is not in your Mama’s power to force you into a distasteful marriage! Oh, if only I could see what was best to be done, but I am wholly at a loss!’

  ‘Oh, Miss Charing, will you help me?’

  ‘Yes, yes, to the utmost of my power, but it is all such a dreadful tangle—Olivia, pray dry your eyes! We are approaching the library!’

  Olivia obediently produced her handkerchief, saying gratefully: ‘I knew you would stand my friend!’

  Since Kitty, though anxious to befriend her, had no idea how this was to be done, she felt very much conscience-stricken, and was glad to be able to restore her to Mrs Broughty before she was called upon to outline some scheme for her relief. The only course that offered itself to her was to confide the whole to Freddy; but as he had sent a message to Berkeley Square that he would dine with his sister that evening, she had a good many hours to while away before she could seek his advice. These were spent by her in concocting and immediately discarding a number of quite unsuitable strategems, and in blaming herself bitterly for her part in the affair. A diversion was created midway through the afternoon by Mr Westruther, who came to pay a morning-visit. As Meg had retired to lie down upon her bed, Kitty received him alone, and would not have received him at all had she had the least warning of his arrival. But he was ushered into the drawing-room, where she sat brooding by the fire, so that she had no opportunity to deny herself.

  She accorded him a somewhat cool welcome, but he was quite impervious to such snubs, merely laughing at her, and saying, with a quizzical lift of one eyebrow: ‘Vexed with me, Kitty? For taking Meg to the masquerade? Now, consider how unjust! Am I vexed with you for allowing your fascinating cousin to be your cicisbeo? Certainly not! I hope you enjoyed an excellent evening’s entertainment.’

  She ignored the greater part of this speech. ‘No, I did not enjoy it, and I am astonished that you could have taken Meg to such an improper party!’

  ‘Little prude!’ he said, amused. ‘Did not the dashing Chevalier take good care of you? I had thought him to have been quite in his element!’

  ‘I collect,’ said Kitty, boldly confronting him, ‘that you have taken my cousin in aversion. Will you be so good as to tell me why?’

  ‘My dear Kitty, what in the world can I have said to put such a notion as that into your head? You wrong me, really you do! So far from taking the Chevalier in aversion, I admire his address profoundly, and quite envy him his assurance. Such delightful Gallic polish, and so skilled a card-player! It is a privilege to have met him. Indeed, I hope he may be going to do me the honour of visiting me this very evening, to pit his skill against mine. I am myself a gamester, you know, and I have a great desire to measure myself against one whom I have reason to think a past master in the art.’

  She was dismayed, but summoned up enough courage to reply: ‘I wish you may not have cause to regret it!’

  ‘Ah, well!’ he said, his eyes glinting down at her. ‘Perhaps he may have the advantage of me in some respects, but in others I venture to think that I have the advantage of him.’

  She was silenced, and he presently left her a prey to uneasiness. There could be no doubt that he knew that Olivia had been at the masquerade, for she recalled that she had herself told him that she was there with the Scortons; and she could not rid her mind of its suspicion that his invitation to her cousin to visit him must have some bearing on this circumstance.

  When Freddy arrived in Berkeley Square that evening, she could scarcely restrain her impatience to take him apart, and pour her apprehensions into his ear; but as it lacked only a few minutes to the dinner-hour, and Meg had already joined her in the drawing-room, this was clearly ineligible. Moreover, it immediately became apparent that grave cares were pressing upon Freddy’s soul, for upon his sister’s demanding of him, in a rallying tone, whether Charles had already descended on the town, he replied: ‘No, term don’t end for another ten days. It’s worse than that! Dashed if I didn’t receive a letter from him this morning! Yes, and what’s more, I had to pay sixpence for it, which I’d as lief not have done. It ain’t that I grudge sixpence, but what I mean is, why the deuce should I have to give sixpence for a thing I’d as soon not have?’

  ‘Oh, heavens, is he in a scrape?’ exclaimed Meg.

  ‘Well, of course he is! Knew that as soon as I saw the letter! Stands to reason! What would he want to write to me for, if he hadn’t made a cake of himself in some way or another? Never knew such a fellow! Mind, I daresay it’s only some snyder dunning him, but there’s nothing for it: I shall have to take a bolt to Oxford tomorrow.’

  ‘Going out of town now?’ cried Kitty.

  ‘Yes, but I shan’t be gone above one night. Dashed inconvenient, but the thing is, if Charlie’s landed himself in the basket, must pull him out! Fond of him,’ he added, on an explanatory note. ‘Besides—wouldn’t do for it to come to m’father’s ears!’

  ‘No, indeed! Of course you must go! I hope you may not find that anything very serious is amiss.’

  ‘Yes, I hope so too,’ said Freddy. ‘Because if it’s anything that means I must go and talk to the Bag-wig—what I mean is, the Dean—it’s no use going to Oxford at all, because I don’t suppose he’d listen to me. Never did when I was up myself, and dashed well had to talk to him. Not that I wanted to, mind you, but there it was: obliged to!’

  ‘Could it be that Charlie has become entangled?’ suggested Meg, looking anxious.

  Freddy rubbed his nose. ‘Got into the muslin-company? Might, of course, though he ain’t one for the petticoats. Oh, well, if that’s all it is, nothing to worry about! Buy her off!’

  On this comforting thought, they all went in to dinner. The lighthearted insouciance which characterized the Standens had its effect upon Kitty; and her desponding mood soon changed to one of hope. She was still quite unable to see any way in which she could help Olivia to overcome her troubles, but the cheerful nonchalance with which Freddy confronted the task of rescuing his graceless junior from whatever dire straits he had fallen into insensibly made her feel that the tangle caused by her cousin’s descent upon London would not be beyond his power to unravel.

  When Meg kindly, but (as she pointed out to them) reprehensibly, left the betrothed couple to their own devices, later in the evening, it could not have been said that Freddy’s ingenuity was displayed to any marked degree. He explained, when asked if he had thought what was best to be done, that he had had no leisure in which to examine the problem. ‘Must see I haven’t, Kit! Had a great deal on my mind. Gave me a nasty jar, I can tell you, when it struck me Charlie might be coming down any day. Dashed calendar of mine don’t tell one the dates of the terms, either. Took me the better part of the day to find ’em. And now, just as I thought all was right, I’ve got to go jauntering off to Oxford, and I daresay I shall have to do a lot of thinking when I get there. The thing is, Charlie’s a dashed clever fellow, but he ain’t got a particle of common-sense. No use asking me to get rid of the Chevalier until I come back to town. Do it then.’

  ‘Get rid of him? But how can we, when you yourself said it would be useless to threaten to expose him unless he went away?’

  ‘I don’t know, but very likely I shall hit on something. Well, dashed well must! He hasn’t been calling here, has he?’

  ‘No, oh, no! But I met Olivia today, and I ver
y much fear that it has gone deeper with her than I knew. I own that what she said astonished me! It seems as though the only thing she cares for is that Mrs Broughty would never countenance such a match. You may imagine my surprise when I discovered that Camille’s disclosure has not shocked her, as it shocked me!’

  ‘Daresay it wouldn’t,’ responded Freddy, after giving the matter some thought. ‘Come to think of it, Kit, bit of an adventuress herself!’

  ‘Freddy!’

  He gave an apologetic cough, but said firmly: ‘No use wrapping the thing up in clean linen. I don’t say it’s her fault, but she told you herself she came to town to catch a rich husband. Well, nothing to say against that! Point is, that Broughty woman would play any havey-cavey trick to bring the thing off. Unscrupulous, that’s the word!’

  ‘She is, yes! But not Olivia!’

  ‘Very likely not, because she hasn’t the wit for it. No wish to offend you, Kit, but she sounds a cork-brained girl to me. Always did! I don’t say she ain’t goodhearted, but if she’s got the sort of principles you have yourself I’d like to know where she learned ’em!’

  Kitty stared at him in a little dismay. ‘Must one learn to have principles?’ she faltered.

  ‘Lord, yes! Well, I put it to you, Kit! How the deuce would you know the right way to go on if you was never taught anything but the wrong way?’

  She digested this for a moment in silence. ‘I fear there may be much in what you say,’ she said reluctantly. ‘It has sometimes seemed to me that poor Olivia’s thoughts have not a proper direction, and I have wondered at it, for, indeed, Freddy, she is a good, kind girl! But however it may be it would be wicked to see her thrust into marriage with such a person as Sir Henry Gosford, and make not one push to save her! And when I consider what the alternative might be, and how much I am to blame for her present distress, I feel that I must try to help her! I am persuaded you must enter into my sentiments upon this occasion!’

  Mr Standen was far from doing any such thing, but he was never one to engage in fruitless argument, so he held his peace. He perceived, however, that Miss Charing’s large charity would not permit her to abandon her unfortunate protégée, and eyed her with a good deal of misgiving.

  She had risen from her chair, and was walking restlessly about the room. ‘Something must be done for Olivia!’ she said. ‘She depends upon me to help her, which makes it so particularly dreadful that I cannot! And then there is poor Dolph! All this business has almost made me forget him and Hannah! What wretched work I am making of it!’

  ‘Know what I think, Kit? Good thing if you did forget ’em! What I mean is, very sorry for the poor fellow, but got enough on our hands without him.’

  ‘Oh, no! When I pledged them my word I would assist them!’

  Freddy sighed.

  ‘And then there is myself!’ Kitty said. ‘I can’t tell how it has come about, but I have done nothing of what I intended! Freddy, we must not continue in this fashion! It was very wrong of me ever to ask such a thing of you! Wrong, and so foolish that I am amazed at myself! Only see what has come of it!’

  ‘Dash it, Kit, thought you was enjoying yourself!’ said Freddy, a little hurt.

  She turned impulsively towards him. ‘Oh, it has been the most delightful thing that ever happened to me!’ she said. ‘I shall remember it my whole life long! I never was so happy! But it must end. On that I am resolved! We must consider what is best to be done.’

  ‘Talk it over when I come back from Oxford,’ said Freddy.

  ‘Perhaps,’ said Kitty, ‘the thing would be for us to quarrel.’

  ‘No, dash it! I don’t want to quarrel with you!’

  ‘And I am sure I could never quarrel with you, Freddy!’ said Kitty warmly.

  ‘There are you, then! No sense in it.’

  ‘I meant only that we should pretend to quarrel.’

  ‘Wouldn’t answer at all,’ said Freddy. ‘Everyone knows I ain’t quarrelsome. Tell you what, Kit: good notion if we don’t tease ourselves about that till we’ve packed your cousin off to France. Got to pack Dolph off to Ireland, too.’

  ‘But you said you wished I would not!’

  ‘Oh, well!’ said Freddy, in a temporizing spirit. ‘I’d liefer you did that than started quarrelling with me! Come to think of it, ain’t such a bad notion. Might as well be rid of Dolph while we’re about it. Mind, I don’t dislike the poor fellow, but it ain’t what I’d choose, having a cousin who’s queer in his attic loose on the town!’

  ‘No, indeed! Oh, dear, I cannot help wishing that you were not obliged to go to Oxford tomorrow!’

  ‘No need to worry about that,’ said Freddy kindly. ‘Shan’t stay above one night there, and I don’t mean to dawdle on the road. Hired a chaise-and-four. Won’t take me much above four hours to get back to town. Make an early start, and be in London by noon. No time for anything to go amiss here. Besides, no reason why anything should. Wouldn’t go if there was.’

  Seventeen

  Since Lord Buckhaven was a man of affairs, he paid for an early delivery of the post at his town-house. Consequently, Kitty found a letter addressed to her in Miss Fishguard’s spidery handwriting lying beside her plate on the breakfast-table next morning. She broke the wafer that sealed it, and opened it, but was soon knitting her brows over it. It was evident that it had been written in considerable agitation, for although the opening lines, which expressed Miss Fishguard’s hope that her charge was in good health and continuing to find her stay in town agreeable, were perfectly legible, the writing soon became little better than a scrawl. As Miss Fishguard, in a conscientious determination to save Kitty the cost of receiving a second sheet, had crossed her lines closely, the task of deciphering the whole was very nearly impossible. After poring over it for some minutes, Kitty exclaimed: ‘I declare I don’t know what can be the matter with Fish! In general, she writes such a very neat hand, and here she is sending me a letter I cannot make head or tail of! I do hope Uncle Matthew has not driven her out of her wits!’

  ‘I should think he would drive anyone out of her wits,’ observed Meg, sipping her coffee. ‘He must be the most odious person imaginable!’

  ‘Yes, but in her last letter Fish wrote that he was behaving quite amiably. Besides, she is really so much accustomed to his odd ways that she would not make a fuss only because he had thrown his stick at her, or something of that nature. But there can be no doubt that something is amiss, for she begs me to return so that she may tell me what has happened.’

  ‘But you cannot!’ said Meg, putting down her cup.

  ‘No, and she seems to feel that, for there is something here which I think is spare you for one day. That must mean you, Meg. Oh, yes! Now I see! That word, which I took to be Ladybirds, must be Lady Buckhaven! Then there is something I cannot read, and being thought a cockatrice.’

  ‘Who?’ demanded Meg. ‘If she means me, I think it is excessively uncivil of her, besides being unjust, for I never saw her but once in all my life!’

  ‘Perhaps it isn’t cockatrice. Yet it certainly looks like it. However, here, on the very next line, is something about Henry VIII, so I don’t think it can be.’

  ‘She cannot be writing to you about Henry VIII!’ objected Meg.

  ‘Well, one would think not, but you may see for yourself!’ replied Kitty, showing her the sheet.

  The fair head and the dark were bent over it. ‘I must say, it does seem to be Henry VIII,’ admitted Meg. ‘Perhaps she is likening Uncle Matthew to him! He was very disagreeable too, wasn’t he?’

  ‘Yes, so he was! He had rages, and cut off people’s heads. No doubt that is it! But who can this Katherine be?’

  ‘Katherine of Aragon!’ said Meg brilliantly.

  ‘No, I am sure it’s not Aragon. Besides, how absurd! They must have been obliged to turn one of the maids off, and hire a new one. Perhaps Uncle Matthew has taken a
dislike to her. He usually does.’

  ‘I cannot conceive why Miss Fishguard should beg you to go home only because she has engaged a new servant.’

  ‘Oh, no, and it seems not to be that at all, for I can distinctly make out unable to write it, and, a little farther on something about my generosity. Then there is a word which looks like treason, so it can have nothing to do with this Katherine. It must be Henry VIII again, and yet—You know, Meg, I think I shall be obliged to post down to Arnside, if Freddy will be so good as to take me, when he comes back to town, for there can be no doubt that poor Fish is in great distress!’

  Meg agreed to it, though rather reluctantly. She said that she feared that Kitty would be persuaded to remain at Arnside; and Kitty, once more stricken by the warm kindliness of the Standens, forbore to tell her that the day was rapidly approaching when she must for ever lose her young chaperon. The only salve Kitty could find to apply to her unquiet conscience was the knowledge that she had really been of use to Meg.

  Soon after breakfast, Meg, arrayed in a blue velvet pelisse, and the only one of her hats which she thought likely to escape the criticism of the censorious, went off to pay a dutiful call on her husband’s Aunt Maria, with whom she had untruthfully announced her intention of dining, on the night of the masquerade. Kitty offered to accompany her, but Meg thought that it would be better if Aunt Maria did not set eyes on her. Having contrived to convey to the formidable lady, who, mercifully, disapproved so strongly of frivolity that she rarely went into society, the impression that Freddy’s betrothed was a very sober girl, of strict upbringing and rigid principles, it would clearly be an act of madness to present to her a dashing young female, ravishingly attired in a morning dress of twilled French silk, and with her hair cut and curled in the very latest mode. ‘Besides, Aunt Maria would be bound to say you were fast, because she thinks all pretty females must be.’

  ‘I?’ gasped Kitty. ‘Pretty?’

  ‘Now, Kitty, don’t be missish! You know you are! Papa was saying only the other day that you have a great deal of countenance. Of course, the thing that particularly pleases Mama is that you have such excellent taste. She sets the greatest store by that, you know, and says she shall be very glad to take you about with her as soon as she is able, because you will do us all such credit! Shall you be going out? If you are in Bond Street, I wish you will take back The Pastor’s Fireside to Hookham’s—unless you mean to read it yourself, but I do not at all recommend it!’

 
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