Cotillion, p.3
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       Cotillion, p.3

           Georgette Heyer
 

  ‘I won’t go with George!’ announced Dolphinton. ‘I don’t like George. Didn’t come to see him. Oughtn’t to be here. Wasn’t invited!’

  ‘Oh, my God, now we are back at that!’ muttered Biddenden. ‘You might just as well take yourself off to bed, Dolphinton, as remain here!’

  ‘No, I might not,’ returned Dolphinton, with spirit. ‘I ain’t a married man! What’s more, I’m an Earl.’

  ‘What has that to say to anything, pray? I wish you will—’

  ‘Important,’ said Dolphinton. ‘Good thing to marry an Earl. Be a Countess.’

  ‘This, I collect, is a declaration!’ said Biddenden sardonically. ‘Pretty well, Foster, I must say!’

  ‘Are you being so obliging as to make me an offer, Dolph?’ enquired Miss Charing, in no way discomposed.

  Lord Dolphinton nodded several times, grateful to her for her ready understanding. ‘Very happy to oblige!’ he said. ‘Not at all plump in the pocket—no, not to mention that! Just say—always had a great regard for you! Do me the honour to accept of my hand in marriage!’

  ‘Upon my word!’ ejaculated Biddenden. ‘If one did not know the truth, one would say you were three parts disguised, Foster!’

  Lord Dolphinton, uneasily aware of having lost the thread of a prepared speech, looked more miserable than ever, and coloured to the roots of his lank brown locks. He cast an imploring glance at Miss Charing, who at once rose, and went to seat herself in a chair beside him, patting his hand in a soothing way, and saying: ‘Nonsense! You said it very creditably, Dolph, and I perfectly understand how it is! You have offered for me because your Mama ordered you to do so, haven’t you?’

  ‘That’s it,’ said his lordship, relieved. ‘No wish to vex you, Kitty—really very fond of you!—but must make a push!’

  ‘Exactly so! Your estates are shockingly mortgaged, and your pockets are quite to let, so you have offered for me! But you don’t really wish to marry me, do you?’

  His lordship sighed. ‘No help for it!’ he said simply.

  ‘Yes, there is, because I won’t accept your offer, Dolph,’ said Miss Charing, in a consoling tone. ‘So now you may be comfortable again!’

  The cloud lifted from his brow, only to descend again. ‘No, I shan’t,’ said his lordship wretchedly. ‘She’ll take a pet. Say I must have made poor work of it.’

  ‘What astonishes me,’ said Biddenden, in an aside to his brother, ‘is that my Aunt Augusta permitted him to come here without her!’

  ‘Didn’t want to,’ said Dolphinton, once more startling his relatives by his ability to follow the gist of remarks not addressed to himself. ‘Uncle Matthew said he wouldn’t let her cross his threshold. Said I must come alone. I didn’t object, only she’ll say I didn’t do the thing as she told me. Well, I did! Offered for you—said I was an Earl—said I should be honoured! Won’t believe it, that’s all!’

  ‘Oh, don’t distress yourself!’ said Biddenden. ‘We three are witnesses to testify to your having expressed yourself with all the ardour and address imaginable!’

  ‘You think I did?’ said Dolphinton hopefully.

  ‘Oh, heaven grant me patience!’ exclaimed his cousin.

  ‘Indeed, you stand in need of it!’ said Hugh sternly. ‘You may be quite easy, my dear Foster: you have done just as my aunt bade you. I believe I may say that no persuasions of hers could have prevailed upon our cousin to have changed her nay to yea.’

  ‘Well, you may,’ conceded Miss Charing. ‘Only I am very well able to speak for myself, I thank you, Hugh! Are you wishful of making me an offer?’

  Lord Dolphinton, his mission honourably discharged, turned an interested gaze upon his clerical cousin; Lord Biddenden exclaimed: ‘This is intolerable!’ and Hugh himself looked a trifle out of countenance. He hesitated, before saying, with a constrained smile: ‘There is a degree of awkwardness attached to the situation which might, I fancy, be more easily overcome were we to converse alone together.’

  ‘Yes, but you cannot expect George and poor Dolph to remove to a room where there is no fire!’ objected Miss Charing reasonably. ‘It would be useless to apply to Uncle Matthew for leave to kindle any more fires tonight: you must know that! Nothing puts him into such a taking as habits of wasteful extravagance, and he would be bound to think it a great waste of coals to make a fire for George or for Dolph. And as for our situation’s being awkward, if I do not regard that I am sure you need not. In fact, I am happy to be able to tell as many of you as I can that I have not the smallest wish to marry any of you!’

  ‘Very likely you have not, Kitty, but that you should express yourself with such heat—or, I may say, at all!—is very unbecoming in you. I am astonished that Miss Fishguard—an excellent woman, I am sure!—should not have taught you a little more conduct!’ It occurred to Lord Biddenden that a quarrel with Kitty would scarcely forward the project he had in view, and he added, in a more cordial tone: ‘But, indeed, I must own that such a situation as this must be considered in itself to have passed the bounds of propriety! Believe me, Kitty, I feel for you! You have been made the object of what I cannot but deem a distempered freak.’

  ‘Yes, but fortunately I am very well acquainted with you all, so that I need have no scruple in speaking the truth to you,’ Kitty pointed out. ‘I don’t want Uncle Matthew’s odious fortune, and as for marrying any gentleman who offered for me only because I have the advantage of a handsome dependance, I would rather wear the willow all my days! And let me tell you, Hugh, that I did not think that you would do such a thing!’

  The Rector, not unnaturally, was a little confounded by this sudden attack, and made her no immediate reply. Lord Dolphinton, who had listened intently to what she had to say, was pleased to find that he was able to elucidate. ‘Shouldn’t have come,’ he told his rigid cousin. ‘Not the thing for a man in orders. George shouldn’t have come either. Not in orders, but not invited.’

  ‘Not want to inherit a fortune!’ exclaimed Biddenden, the enormity of such a declaration making it possible for him to ignore Dolphinton’s unwelcome intrusion into the argument. ‘Pooh! nonsense! You do not know what you are saying!’

  ‘On the contrary,’ said the Rector, making a recovery, ‘her sentiments do her honour! My dear Kitty, none is more conscious than myself of what must be your reflections upon this occasion. Indeed, you must believe that I share them! That my great-uncle would make me the recipient of his fortune was a thought that has never crossed my head: if I have ever indulged my brain with speculations on the nature of his intentions, I have supposed that he would bequeath to his adopted child a respectable independance, and the residue of his estate to that member of the family whom we know to be his favourite great-nephew. None of us, I fancy, could have called in question the propriety of such a disposition; none of us can have imagined that he would, whatever the event, have left that adopted child destitute upon the world.’ He saw the startled look in Miss Charing’s eyes, and said, with great gentleness: ‘That, dearest Kitty, is what he has assured us he will do, should we or you refuse to obey his—I do not scruple to say—monstrous command!’

  ‘Destitute?’ repeated Kitty, as though the word were unknown.

  Lord Biddenden pulled a chair forward, and sat down beside her, possessing himself of one of her hands, and patting it. ‘Yes, Kitty, that is the matter in a nutshell,’ he said. ‘I do not wonder that you should look shocked! Your repugnance must be shared by any man of sensibility. The melancholy truth is that you were not born to an independance; your father—a man of excellent family, of course!—was improvident; but for the generosity of my uncle in adopting you, you must have been reared in such conditions as we will not dwell upon—a stranger to all the elegancies of life, a penniless orphan without a protector to lend you consequence! My dear Kitty, you might even have counted yourself fortunate today to have found yourself in such a situation as Miss Fishguard’s!


  It was plain, from the impressive dropping of his voice, that he had described to her the lowest depths in which his fancy was capable of imagining her. His solemn manner had its effect; she looked instinctively towards the Rector, upon whose judgment she had been accustomed, of late years, to depend.

  ‘I cannot say that it is untrue,’ Hugh responded, in a low tone. ‘Indeed, I must acknowledge that whatever may be my uncle’s conduct today, however improper in my eyes, you are very much beholden to him for his generosity in the past.’

  She pulled her hand out of Lord Biddenden’s warm, plump clasp, and jumped up, saying impulsively: ‘I hope I am not ungrateful, but when you speak of generosity I feel as though my heart must burst!’

  ‘Kitty, Kitty, do not talk in that intemperate style!’ Hugh said.

  ‘No, no, but you do not understand!’ she cried. ‘You speak of his fortune, and you know it to be large! Everyone says that, but I have no cause to suspect it! If he yielded to a generous impulse when he adopted me, at least he has atoned for that during all these years! No, Hugh, I won’t hush! Ask poor Fish what wage she has received from him for educating me! Ask her what shifts she has often and often been put to to contrive that I should not be dressed in rags! Well, perhaps not rags, precisely, but only look at this gown I am wearing now!’

  All three gentlemen obeyed her, but perhaps only Lord Biddenden recognized the justice of her complaint. Hugh said: ‘You look very well, Kitty, I assure you. There is a neatness and a propriety—’

  ‘I do not want neatness and propriety!’ interrupted Kitty, her cheeks flushed, and her eyes sparkling. ‘I want elegant dresses, and I want to have my hair cut in the first style of fashion, and I want to go to assemblies, and rout-parties, and to the theatre, and to the Opera, and not—not!—to be a poor little squab of a dowdy!’

  Again, only Biddenden was able to appreciate her feelings. ‘Very understandable!’ he said. ‘It is not at all to be wondered at. Why, you have been kept so cooped-up here that I daresay you may never have attended so much as a concert!’

  ‘Very true,’ Hugh concurred. ‘I have frequently observed to my uncle that the indulgence of some degree of rational amusement should be granted to you, Kitty. Alas, I fear that his habits and prejudices are fixed! I cannot flatter myself that my words have borne weight with him.’

  ‘Exactly so!’ Biddenden said. ‘And so it must always be while you remain under this roof, Kitty! However little you may relish the manner of my uncle’s proposals, you must perceive all the advantages attached to an eligible marriage. You will have a position of the first respectability; you will be mistress of a very pretty establishment, able to order things as you choose; with the habits of economy you have learnt you will find yourself at the outset most comfortably circumstanced; and in the course of time you will be able to command every imaginable extravagance.’

  From his lengthening upper lip it was to be deduced that this sketch of the future made little appeal to the Rector. He said: ‘I do Kitty the justice to believe that the tone of her mind is too nice to allow of her hankering after extravagance. I am not a Puritan; I sympathize to the full in her desire to escape from the restrictions imposed upon her by my uncle’s valetudinarian habits—’

  ‘Oh!’ cried Kitty wistfully, ‘I should like so much to be extravagant!’

  ‘You will allow me to know you better than you know yourself, dear Kitty,’ responded Hugh, with great firmness. ‘Most naturally, you desire to become better acquainted with the world. You would like to visit the Metropolis, I daresay, and so you shall! You yearn to taste the pleasures enjoyed by those persons who constitute what is known as the ton. It is only proper that you should do so. I venture to prophesy that in a very short space of time you would find many of these pleasures hollow cheats. But do not imagine that if you were to bestow your hand upon me in marriage you would find me opposed to the occasional gratification of your wish for more gaiety than is to be found in a country parish! I am no enemy to the innocent recreation of dancing; I have frequently derived no small enjoyment from a visit to the playhouse; and while I must always hold gaming in abhorrence I am not so bigoted that I cannot play a tolerable game of whist, or quadrille, or bear my part in a private loo-party.’

  ‘Hugh,’ interrupted Kitty, ‘George must have constrained you to make me this offer!’

  ‘I assure you, upon my honour, it is not so!’

  ‘You don’t wish me to be your wife! You—you don’t love me!’ she said, in a suffocating voice, and with tears starting to her eyes.

  He replied stiffly: ‘My regard for you is most sincere. Since I was inducted into a parish, not so far distant as to make it impossible for me frequently to visit my great-uncle, I have had ample opportunity of observing you, and to my regard has been added respect. I am persuaded that there is nothing in your character which could preclude your becoming a most eligible wife to any man in orders.’

  She gazed up at him in astonishment. ‘I?’ she exclaimed. ‘When you have been for ever scolding me for levity, and frowning every time I don’t mind my tongue to your liking, and telling me I ought not to be discontented with my lot? How can you talk so?’

  He possessed himself of her hand, saying, with a smile: ‘These are the faults of youth, Kitty. I own, I have tried to guide you: it was never my intention to scold!’

  ‘If you are not constrained by George, it must be by Uncle Matthew!’ she declared, snatching her hand away.

  ‘Yes, in some sort,’ he replied. ‘It is hard for you to understand the motives—’

  ‘No, I assure you!’

  ‘Yes,’ he said steadily. ‘You must know, Kitty—you must realize, however painful it may be—that George has spoken only the truth. Your whole dependance is upon my uncle; were he to die, leaving you unwed, unbetrothed to one of us, your situation must be desperate indeed. I hesitate to wound you, but I must tell you that, the world being what it is, a respectable marriage is hard to achieve for a dowerless and orphaned female. What could you do to maintain yourself, if left alone upon the world? George has spoken of such a position as that held by Miss Fishguard, but surely without reflection! Miss Fishguard is an excellent woman, but she is lacking in such accomplishments as a governess, seeking employment in the first circles, is today expected to impart to her pupils. Her knowledge is not profound; her performance upon the pianoforte is not superior; she has no skill with Water-Colours; little mastery over the French tongue: none at all over the Italian.’

  She turned her face away, a blush of mortification spreading over her cheeks. ‘You mean that I am lacking in accomplishments.’

  ‘Since my uncle neglected to provide masters to supply the deficiencies of your education, it must necessarily be so,’ he replied calmly. ‘You know, my dear Kitty, how often I have recommended you to pursue your studies, even though you have left the schoolroom.’

  ‘Yes,’ acknowledged Kitty, without enthusiasm.

  ‘It would afford me much pleasure to be able to direct your studies, and to read with you,’ he said. ‘I believe I may say that I am accounted a good scholar, and I am very sure that to guide the taste and to enlarge the knowledge of so intelligent a pupil as you, dear cousin, must be an agreeable task.’

  Lord Biddenden, who had been listening to his brother’s measured speeches in growing disapprobation, could no longer contain his impatience. ‘Well, really, Hugh!’ he ejaculated. ‘A fine offer to be making the poor girl, I must say! Enough to set her against marriage with you from the outset!’

  ‘Kitty understands me,’ Hugh said, rather haughtily.

  ‘Well, yes, I think I do,’ said Kitty. ‘And George is perfectly right! I should dislike excessively to be turned into a scholar, and I cannot feel, Hugh, that I am at all the kind of girl you should marry. And now I come to think of it, I daresay there is one way in which I could earn my bread! I could seek a post as housekee
per. That is something in which I need no instruction. I have had the management of this house ever since I was sixteen, and able to relieve poor Fish of duties for which she is quite unsuited! I expect anyone would be very happy to employ me, too, because if there is one thing I know all about it is the strictest economy!’

  ‘Now, Kitty, don’t talk nonsense!’ begged Lord Biddenden testily.

  The Rector made a silencing gesture with one shapely hand. ‘If your youth, Kitty, did not render you ineligible for such a post, your birth and your breeding most assuredly do. I hardly think, moreover, that you would find it congenial.’

  ‘No, I shouldn’t,’ she said frankly. ‘But I shouldn’t find it congenial to be married to you either, Hugh.’

  ‘There! What did I tell you?’ interpolated Biddenden.

  ‘I am sorry,’ Hugh said, grave but kind. ‘For my part, I should count myself happy to be able to call you my wife.’

  ‘Well, it is very obliging of you to say so,’ retorted Kitty, ‘but if you are speaking the truth I cannot conceive why you should never have given me the least suspicion of it until today!’

  It was his turn to redden, but he did not allow his eyes to waver from hers, and he replied with scarcely a moment’s hesitation: ‘The thought, however, has frequently been in my mind. I believe it is not in my nature to fall in love, as the common phrase has it, but I have long felt for you the sincerest esteem and affection. You are young: you have not yet reached your twentieth birthday; I believed that the time to declare myself was not yet. I have sometimes suspected, too, that you had a partiality for another member of the family decided enough to make it useless for me to address you. It was in the expectation of finding all three of my cousins gathered here that I came to Arnside. I have found only Dolphinton, and in these circumstances I do not hesitate to beg you, Kitty, to accept of my hand in marriage, and to believe that at Garsfield Rectory you may be sure of a safe and an honourable asylum.’

  ‘It is not, then, for the sake of Uncle Matthew’s fortune that you have offered for me, but from chivalry towards a penniless creature whom you suppose to have been rejected by—by everyone else?’ demanded Kitty breathlessly. ‘I—I would rather marry Dolph!’

 
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