Cotillion, p.29
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       Cotillion, p.29

           Georgette Heyer
 

  She then departed, leaving her guest to peruse the morning papers before sallying forth on her errand. She had just put on her hat and pelisse, and was descending the stairs to the hall when Lord Dolphinton, having tugged violently at the bell and banged the knocker several times for good measure, was admitted into the house.

  ‘Miss Charing!’ uttered his lordship, in agitated accents.

  ‘I fancy, my lord, that Miss has but this instant stepped out, but I will enquire,’ bowed Skelton.

  ‘Wait for her!’ said Dolphinton, thrusting his hat and cane upon the slightly startled butler. ‘Must see her! Important!’

  ‘Good gracious, Dolph, whatever is the matter?’ exclaimed Kitty, hurrying down the stairs.

  Dolphinton clutched her hand, and said in a gasp: ‘Must see you!’

  ‘Yes, yes, of course!’ said Kitty. ‘Come into the breakfast-parlour, and tell me all about it!’

  He allowed himself to be led into this apartment; but when she had shut the door, and pushed him gently into a chair by the fire, he seemed to find the greatest difficulty in enunciating a word. He sat opening and shutting his mouth for some moments, staring at her with such an expression of misery on his face that she became alarmed, and begged him to tell her if anything terrible had happened to Miss Plymstock.

  He swallowed convulsively. ‘Not Hannah. Me! Don’t know what to do. Obliged to offer for you again!’

  She could not help laughing. ‘Now, Dolph, don’t be absurd! I collect that your Mama has been teasing you?’

  He nodded. ‘Says I must sweep you off your feet. I don’t want to. Don’t want to sweep anybody off her feet. Not even Hannah. Don’t know how. Besides, Freddy wouldn’t like it. Might call me out. Not going to fight a duel with Freddy! Won’t do it! I like Freddy! Like him better than Hugh, or—’

  ‘Yes, yes, you like him better than any of your cousins!’ said Kitty. ‘He won’t call you out, I promise you!’

  ‘Mama says he won’t, but I don’t know. Mama says you won’t marry him. Says she knew it all along. Says if I do the thing right you’ll marry me. Says—’

  ‘She says that I shall like to be a Countess, and you have only to tell me of all the advantages which would be mine, if I married you, for me to accept your offer!’ interrupted Kitty. ‘But this is all nonsense, Dolph, and there is nothing to put you in this taking! You may tell your Mama that you did her bidding, and I refused to listen to you.’

  He shook his head. ‘Don’t understand. Haven’t thought! I have. People may say I can’t think, but I can. Often think for hours and hours. Thought about this. See it all. You refuse me—can’t come here any more—shan’t see Hannah—put a period to my existence! Only thing is, able to swim! Shouldn’t like to put a pistol to my head. At least,’ he added, ‘don’t think I should. Got peppered in the leg by a careless fellow once. Didn’t like it above half.’

  Considerably frightened, Kitty knelt beside his chair, and took his hand, and patted it. ‘No, no, Dolph! Pray do not talk in that wild fashion! I do understand!—I understand perfectly! It is all my fault for not having thought of a way to help you all this time! But I will get you out of this fix!’

  ‘You will?’ said his lordship anxiously.

  ‘I will!’ she declared. ‘Oh, dear, it seems as though everything has come upon me at the same time! First, Camille, and then Fish, and now—’ She broke off, as an idea occurred to her, and suddenly raised her eyes to his lordship’s face, staring fixedly at him.

  ‘You think you can get me out of it?’ he said, a glimmer of hope in his eye.

  ‘Wait!’ said Kitty. She sat back on her heels, her brows knitted, and her gaze intent upon the wall.

  His lordship waited obediently, watching her with very much the air of an expectant dog. All at once, her face broke into smiles, and she turned to him, seizing both his hands, and saying impulsively: ‘I have it! How can I have been such a goose as not to have thought of it before? My poor, dear Fish! It is all her doing! You shall marry Miss Plymstock, and I can contrive it so that Freddy shall incur not the smallest blame for it! The only thing is—Dolph, should you object to deceiving your Mama?’

  ‘You think I could do that?’ he asked intently.

  ‘You could, if I showed you how it may be done, and told you several times what you must say to her.’

  ‘Yes, I could,’ agreed his lordship, pleased to find his powers recognized. ‘Like to do it!’

  ‘To be sure you would! Now, listen carefully, Dolph! I find myself obliged to go to Arnside, and you shall take me! You will tell your Mama that you did just as she bade you, and I said that I was willing to marry you, if Uncle Matthew would consent to it, only I must see him face to face, to explain the matter to him. Have you understood that, Dolph? Very well! You will tell her that you mean to take me to Arnside tomorrow—Oh, Dolph, will she let you take me in your own carriage? I believe the post charges are shockingly dear, and I daresay you would find it as hard to lay your hand upon a large sum of money as I should!’

  ‘Take you in my own carriage,’ he repeated, showing his comprehension, and keeping his eyes fixed on her face in a painful effort of concentration.

  ‘Yes, I think she will raise no demur,’ decided Kitty. ‘And there can be no fear of her coming with us, because Uncle Matthew has sworn he will not allow her to enter his house again, and she must know he meant it, because the last time she came he made Stobhill bolt all the doors, and shouted to her out of the window of his dressing-room that she was to go away. Poor Fish had one of her worst spasms, and I must own that it was shockingly uncivil of Uncle Matthew! Well, then, Dolph, you shall bring your carriage here tomorrow morning, quite early, remember, because I particularly wish to be gone out of town before noon! And I will arrange for Hannah to be here, as though she came with me to bear me company, you know, and we will drive away, all three of us! And we shall not go to Arnside, but to Garsfield Rectory!’

  ‘Go to Garsfield Rectory,’ agreed his lordship, puzzled but trusting.

  She gave him a little shake. ‘To Hugh, Dolph! You know he is the Rector! He can marry you to Hannah, and then you will be safe, and Hannah will not permit your Mama to tease you ever again! And your Mama will not question the propriety of your taking a valise with you, because she will expect us to remain at Arnside for the night! It is the most famous scheme, and the best of it is that Freddy need have nothing to do with it! It will be all my fault, and no one will be able to blame him in the least degree!’

  It took time and patience to instill his rôle into Lord Dolphinton’s slow mind, but once he had thoroughly grasped the ramifications of the plot he became so enthusiastic that he was with difficulty dissuaded from accompanying Kitty upon a visit to Keppel Street. She thought it wiser that he should not go with her, however, having little dependence on his discretion, and a lively apprehension that his presence would set Hannah’s sharp-eyed sister-in-law very much upon her guard. Having assured herself that he did indeed understand what he was expected to do, and promised to send him word if some accident should prevent Miss Plymstock from playing her part in the affair, she saw him off the premises, and at once sped forth to Keppel Street.

  She had the good fortune to find Miss Plymstock alone, and had no difficulty in making her understand what was purposed for her benefit. Miss Plymstock heard her in calm, attentive silence, shook hands with her in a very painful way, and said gruffly: ‘Don’t know how to thank you, but I daresay you can guess what I should wish to say to you, Miss Charing. You may depend upon me! If her ladyship has taken to frightening Foster again, there ain’t a moment to be lost. I won’t have her driving him out of his wits, that’s certain! You don’t need to tease yourself, wondering what will happen when I’ve married him: I’ll take care of that! Only let me get his ring on my finger, and I shall know how to do! I ain’t afraid of her ladyship, nor of anyone, and I don’t mean to let her come
next or nigh poor Foster. I daresay there will be a great deal of botheration, not to say unpleasantness, over his money, and that, but I’m prepared for it, and I have a smart lawyer in my eye, who will very likely settle it all in a trice. And if she thinks to make that nasty doctor of hers say that Foster’s mad, we’ll see what my doctor, that’s an honest, sensible man, will say to that! He ain’t mad! And if he were, why, it’s the business of his lawful, wedded wife to take care of him, and so my lady will discover before she is much older!’ She nodded her head in a determined way, but after dwelling for a moment or two, in brooding silence, upon the prospect of utterly confounding her future mother-in-law, brought her thoughts back to the immediate present, and said briskly: ‘I shan’t breathe a word to my brother, Miss Charing. Time enough to tell him what’s become of me when I’m Lady Dolphinton! But it won’t do for me to be seen walking out of here tomorrow with a portmanteau, or some such thing. If I was to put up what I shall be needing at once, before Sister comes back, do you think, Miss Charing, you could be so obliging as to carry it away with you to Berkeley Square? You must know that commonly I go shopping for Sister in the mornings, so that any little thing I might be needing tonight I can pop into my basket tomorrow, and none the wiser.’

  Kitty readily acquiesced in this scheme, and accompanied Miss Plymstock upstairs to her bedchamber to assist her with her packing. She soon found, however, that Miss Plymstock needed no assistance. Having unearthed from an attic at the top of the house a modest valise, she dumped this on the floor of her room, took a rapid survey of her wardrobe, and made an instant and practical selection of the garments to take with her. These were swiftly bestowed in the valise; Miss Plymstock carried it downstairs herself; and, having made sure the servants were not within sight, let herself and Kitty out of the house, saying briefly: ‘I’ll carry it till we find a hack, if you please!’

  This was soon done; Miss Plymstock once more wrung Kitty’s hand, said fiercely: ‘Wish I knew how I could be of service to you!’ and walked off before Kitty could reply.

  It was not to be expected that Meg would accept without question Kitty’s sudden decision to go to Arnside before Freddy’s return to town, nor did she do so. After listening with astonishment to Kitty’s manufactured explanation, she demanded to be told the truth, saying that she had never listened to such a bamboozling story in her life.

  ‘But, Meg, indeed I think that I should go to Fish at once! And Freddy will scarcely wish to leave town again so soon after his journey from Oxford!’

  ‘Kitty, I know this is a take-in! I warned Freddy that you would run off with Dolphinton, if he did not take care, but I didn’t really believe you would! But—’

  Kitty laughed. ‘I should hope not indeed! How can you be so nonsensical? I promise you I will never do that! Now, Meg, you may be perfectly easy, because I have asked my friend, Miss Plymstock, if she will go with me—to lend me countenance, you know, and make everything quite proper!’

  ‘You don’t mean that odd-looking creature who came here one day, and took you out walking?’ gasped Meg. ‘Well! I’m sure I don’t wish to offend you, but I must say, Kitty, that you have the strangest friends! And as for needing her to make it proper, fiddlesticks! One would imagine you meant to go on a journey to Scotland, instead of to Arnside! I wish you will tell me what you are about! I have a strong notion I ought not to let you go. Freddy will say so, depend upon it, and I shall be quite in disgrace with him.’

  ‘No, that you will not, for he won’t be vexed,’ Kitty assured her. ‘He knows, in part, already, and I will write a letter, which you may give him when he comes to see you tomorrow, explaining the rest. I promise you, Meg, I don’t mean to do anything he would not like. I could not!’

  ‘If you think he will not object, why must you be so secret?’ asked Meg reasonably.

  ‘Because it will be better for you not to know anything about it,’ explained Kitty.

  Meg gave a moan of protest. ‘Oh, heavens, I have never had a Spasm in my life, but I shouldn’t be at all surprised if I have one now! You are going to do something dreadful!’

  ‘No, I am not, at least, some persons may say so, but Freddy will not, and I am sure you will not either. Only consider, Meg! How could I do anything dreadful, when Miss Plymstock goes with me? And I will faithfully promise to return here the very next day!’

  Meg was a little reassured by this. She made several attempts, during the course of the day, to coax the secret out of Kitty, but Kitty would do nothing but shake her head, and giggle. This was exasperating, but it did not seem likely that she would have giggled had she been bent on some desperate action, so Meg gave it up at last, shrugging her shoulders, and saying: ‘Oh, very well, though I think it is very disagreeable of you, and I beg you will not blame me if you find yourself in a scrape!’

  ‘No, that I won’t!’ Kitty said, in the throes of composing a letter to Freddy.

  This missive soon covered several sheets of Meg’s elegant, gilt-edged writing-paper, for it seemed a very natural thing to tell Freddy the whole story, not omitting any details which she felt sure he would enjoy, such as the clever arrangement she had made for the journey in the carriage Lady Dolphinton doubtless considered to be her own, and poor Dolph’s woebegone face when he said that he had come to sweep her off her feet.

  She could not help feeling a trifle anxious, next day; and she would not have been altogether surprised had she received a visit from Lady Dolphinton. To have entrusted so important a share in the arrangements to Dolphinton did indeed seem a hazardous thing to have done, and made her fearful of the issue. However, when Miss Plymstock arrived in Berkeley Square, shortly after ten o’clock, and heard of these qualms, she said confidently that all would be well. ‘He don’t understand things quickly, Miss Charing, but once you fix a thing in his head, which I don’t doubt you did, he don’t forget it. The only thing is that he may be in a sad pucker, what with the excitement, and being scared his mother will find him out.’

  She was right on both counts. Twenty minutes later, a travelling-carriage drew up outside the house, Lord Dolphinton alighted from it, and, after casting around him a glance suggestive of a hare hotly pursued by hounds, hurried up the steps to the front-door. He was soon ushered into the saloon where Kitty and Hannah were sitting, and barely waited until Skelton had withdrawn before gasping: ‘Did it! Got the carriage. Told a lot of lies. Remembered everything you said!’

  ‘That’s right,’ said Hannah, in a motherly voice. ‘You’ve done very well, Foster, just as I knew you would, and now you may be easy.’

  ‘No, I mayn’t,’ he said, wiping his pallid countenance with a crumpled handkerchief. ‘Afraid she’ll come after me!’

  ‘Well, she will do no such thing, my dear, because there’s no reason why she should.’

  His lordship looked at her with terror in his eye. ‘Got Finglass with me!’ he uttered. ‘Spies on me! Didn’t dare say I wouldn’t have him. Thought she might suspect.’

  ‘And a very good thing too,’ said the redoubtable Miss Plymstock calmly. ‘I’d just as lief he was under my eye, for he can’t work any mischief if we keep him with us.’

  ‘Yes, and you may employ him afterwards to carry the news that you are married back to your Mama,’ interpolated Kitty encouragingly. ‘You must not be afraid of him, Dolph, for although he may spy on you, he cannot do anything, you know. He is obliged to obey your orders; and now that you have escaped from your Mama you do not care what tales he may carry to her.’

  He looked doubtful, but Hannah told him that Kitty was quite right, and he seemed to accept this assurance, and to become less agitated. But just then Meg’s voice was heard, and Kitty was obliged to remind him hastily that Meg was not in the secret, which threw him back into disorder. Fortunately, Meg thought him at all times so very odd that she was unlikely, Kitty hoped, to notice any additional peculiarity in his bearing.

  She enter
ed the room, shook hands with Miss Plymstock, and civilly invited her to partake of a little refreshment before setting out on the journey.

  ‘Like to start now!’ said Dolphinton, in a hoarse whisper, and plucking at Kitty’s sleeve.

  ‘My dear Dolph, there can be no need of such haste!’ said Meg. ‘I daresay it will not take you above two hours to reach Arnside.’

  This made him look so anguished that Kitty made haste to say that she particularly desired to reach Arnside in good time. ‘Because Uncle Matthew shuts himself up in his book-room all the afternoon, and so I shall be able to enjoy a comfortable talk with Fish,’ she explained.

  ‘I shan’t have to see Uncle Matthew, shall I?’ said Dolphinton, a fresh terror raising its head.

  ‘No, no, you need not see him! I think, Miss Plymstock, that perhaps we had better go immediately.’

  ‘I’m agreeable,’ responded Hannah, picking up her basket.

  Meg, eyeing the basket in a fascinated way, and wondering what could be in it, made no further attempt to detain the travellers. She accompanied them to the front-door, and stood on the top step to wave good-bye, calling after Dolphinton to be sure to bring Kitty back in good time the next day. This adjuration made him pause, just as he was about to climb into the carriage. He looked over his shoulder in a harassed manner, and was just about to say that he was not coming back to London when two small but resolute pairs of hands seized his coat and dragged him into the carriage. The door was shut on him, and his groom mounted on to the box beside the coachman. ‘Drive fast!’ said his lordship, putting his head out of the window. ‘Spring ’em!’

 
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