Cotillion, p.33
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       Cotillion, p.33

           Georgette Heyer
 

  ‘My dear Kitty!’ he said, surprise and disapproval blended in his voice.

  ‘Thank goodness you have come at last!’ she returned. ‘Now, Dolph, don’t be so foolish! It is only Hugh!’

  The Rector now perceived that his somewhat feeble-minded cousin was peeping at him from under the tablecloth. His astonishment grew. ‘Dolphinton! You here? I hope you mean to explain to me what this means, Kitty!’

  ‘Well, of course I do!’ she replied. ‘Only first, do, pray, persuade Dolph to come out!’

  ‘Come, Foster!’ said Hugh, with grave authority. ‘You must not sit under the table, you know. You are not a child.’

  His lordship crawled out of cover, and rose sheepishly to his feet. ‘Had a fright,’ he explained. ‘Frightened of my mother. She’ll bring Foulstone after me. I know she will. Shut me up.’

  Miss Plymstock took his hand, and patted it. ‘No, she will not, Foster. Now, didn’t you tell me you would be safe with your cousin? Besides, she believes you to be at Arnside, and very well pleased she is. You tell him, sir, that he’s safe here!’

  The Rector, who had been looking at Miss Plymstock with a good deal of surprise and no very marked degree of approbation, said rather frigidly: ‘Foster knows that he has nothing to be afraid of under my roof, ma’am. Come, Foster, sit down in this chair, and straighten your neckcloth! This will not do at all, my dear fellow! Such foolish conduct is not suited to your position, you know.’

  ‘I wish I wasn’t an Earl,’ said his lordship wistfully. ‘I could do a lot of things if I wasn’t. I could breed horses. Sit under the table, if I wanted to. But I don’t want to sit under the table. I don’t want to hide in the cupboard either.’

  ‘Certainly not!’ said his cousin.

  ‘If I wasn’t an Earl, I shouldn’t have to. Shouldn’t have to offer for Kitty, either.’

  Hugh patted him kindly on the shoulder, but said to Kitty, with some severity: ‘I do not know what you can have been about to have upset the poor fellow like this! It was wrong, and thoughtless in you, my dear Kitty.’

  ‘It was not I who upset him, but that wicked, cruel mother of his!’ cried Kitty, stung by this unmerited reproof. ‘I should have supposed you must have known that, for you are very well aware how she uses him!’

  He said, in a voice of still graver censure: ‘Whatever may be my aunt’s faults, such language is quite improper, and, indeed, uncalled-for.’

  ‘Well, it certainly ain’t that!’ interposed Miss Plymstock, in her downright way. ‘I was never one for mealy-mouthed talk: don’t believe in it! What Miss Charing says is the plain truth: wicked and cruel she is, and so I shall tell her, when I meet her ladyship!’

  The Rector stiffened. ‘May I request you, Kitty, to present me to your friend? I fancy I have not the pleasure of her acquaintance.’

  ‘Good gracious, what can I have been thinking about?’ exclaimed Kitty. ‘Pray forgive me, Hannah! This, as you have guessed, is Mr Rattray. And, Hugh, this is Miss Plymstock, who is betrothed to Dolph!’

  He bowed, but said: ‘Indeed! I must suppose that the engagement is of very recent date, since this is the first intimation I have received of it.’

  ‘No, it is of long-standing date, but secret.’

  ‘Secret,’ repeated Dolphinton, nodding his head, and looking anxiously at the Rector. ‘Going to marry Hannah. Kitty says I shall. Kitty said I should hoax my mother, and I did. I got the carriage, too. Did it well, didn’t I, Hannah?’

  ‘To be sure you did, my dear,’ she told him, sitting down beside him.

  ‘Do you tell me that you have contracted an engagement without my aunt’s knowledge?’ demanded Hugh sternly.

  Dolphinton looked frightened; Kitty said impatiently: ‘Of course he has! How can you be so absurd, Hugh? As though you were not very well aware that she wishes him to marry me! You know how it is with him! He has been obliged to keep his engagement a secret. And that is why I have brought him and Miss Plymstock to you, so that you may marry them!’

  He looked quite thunderstruck. ‘Are you telling me, Kitty, that this is why you are here, and sent me so urgent a message that I found myself constrained to respond to it, in spite of the fact that my leaving Biddenden in such haste put my brother and his wife to considerable inconvenience? I went to Biddenden upon family affairs of some moment, and all must be at a stand until I return there.’

  ‘Well, I am sure I am very sorry, Hugh, but you may return as soon as you have performed your part here, you know!’ said Kitty reasonably.

  ‘That,’ he said, ‘I am by no means inclined to do! I do not know under what circumstances Dolphinton has contracted his engagement, but it is plain to me that it is not one of which my aunt would approve. You would not else be here! I cannot lend myself to anything that savours of the clandestine.’

  ‘Hugh!’ gasped Kitty. ‘I had thought you poor Dolph’s friend!’

  ‘I am his friend, as I hope he knows.’

  ‘You cannot be, for you would not stand there talking in that heartless way if you were! Dolph and Miss Plymstock love one another!’

  Miss Plymstock, who had been stolidly staring at the Rector, interposed, to say bluntly; ‘Seems to me it ain’t in your power to refuse to marry us, sir, for all this fine talking. Foster’s of age, and so am I. You’re thinking, I daresay, that I ain’t good enough for your cousin. Well, I don’t pretend to be any better born than what I am, but what I do say is that I shall make Foster a better wife than many a one that has a title.’

  ‘Yes, you are good enough for me!’ said Dolphinton. ‘I won’t let you say you ain’t. Won’t let anyone say it!’

  ‘That’s right, Dolph!’ said Kitty approvingly.

  Emboldened by this encouragement, his lordship went further. ‘I won’t let Freddy say it, and I like Freddy. Like him better than Hugh. If Hugh says it, I’ll draw his cork. Do you think I should do that, Kitty?’

  ‘Well, I don’t precisely understand what it means, Dolph, but I daresay it would be an excellent thing to do.’

  ‘Lord, my dear, it don’t matter to me what anyone says of me!’ said Miss Plymstock. ‘Let ’em say what they choose, for it won’t vex us. Don’t you start picking a quarrel with the Reverend! He’s bound to think you’re marrying beneath you, for I can see he’s a proud kind of a man; but maybe, if he likes to come and visit us in Ireland, he’ll own he was mistaken.’

  Dolphinton’s face brightened. ‘I should like Hugh to visit us. Like Kitty to visit us. Like Freddy to visit us too. I shall show them my horses.’

  Kitty took advantage of this interlude to pull the Rector over to the window, and to say to him in an urgent under-voice: ‘Hugh, upon my word I promise you that you cannot do Dolph a greater service than to marry him to Hannah! She is the kindest, most practical creature! She means to take him to Ireland, and let him breed horses, so that he may be perfectly happy and busy. You must own it would be the very thing for him!’

  ‘Certainly, I have always been an advocate for his living quietly in the country. It is noticeable that whenever he has been staying here with me he is perfectly rational. I do not say that his intellect is strong, but he is by no means an imbecile.’

  ‘Indeed, he is not! But are you aware, Hugh, that his Mama threatens to have him locked up?’

  He cast a quick glance over his shoulder, but Dolphinton was engaged in enumerating to Miss Plymstock the various attractions of his Irish house. ‘You must be mistaken! She could not do such a thing. It is quite unnecessary.’

  ‘I don’t know what she is wicked enough to do, but I do know that that is what terrifies poor Dolph so. As for that doctor of hers, Dolph is thrown into a quake whenever he thinks about him. Why, she even sets his servants to spy on him! He told me so himself, and how they tell her all he does, and where he goes!’

  ‘You shock me very much!’ he said. ‘I had not believe
d it to have been possible. But to be eloping in this fashion, and to expect me to abet him in conduct which is quite improper—!’

  ‘I see what it is!’ she interrupted, a sparkle in her eye. ‘You are afraid to do it! You are afraid of your aunt, and of what people may say! I think it very poor-spirited of you, Hugh, but I am very sure it is not in your power to refuse to marry two persons, when there is no—no impediment!’

  He said, flushing a little: ‘There is no occasion for you to speak with such unbecoming heat. I am certainly not afraid to do what I conceive to be my duty. But in this instance there are considerations of family involved, which—’

  ‘If Freddy does not regard such considerations, I am sure you need not!’ she interrupted.

  He looked rather taken aback. ‘Does Freddy, then, know of this affair?’

  ‘Yes, indeed he does!’

  ‘I can only say that I am surprised. However, I cannot allow Freddy to be a guide to my conduct.’

  She was stung by his tone of superiority into retorting: ‘I do not know why you should not, for he is a Standen, after all!’

  At this moment, Miss Plymstock touched Kitty’s arm. ‘Beg pardon, but I’ll be glad to know what you have decided,’ she said. Sinking her voice, she added: ‘It won’t do to be keeping Foster in suspense, for he’s had a very exciting day, which ain’t good for him.’ She glanced from Hugh’s rigid countenance to Kitty’s angry one. ‘I collect you don’t mean to oblige us, sir,’ she said. ‘Well, if you won’t you won’t, but I’ll tell you to your head I’ll not let Foster go back to be driven crazy by his mother. If I’m driven to it—though I own it ain’t what I like, partly because I was reared to be respectable, and partly because it don’t put me in a strong position when it comes to dealing with her ladyship—I’ll take Foster away, and live with him as his mistress until I can find a parson that will marry us.’

  The Rector looked down from his impressive height into her homely but resolute countenance, and said stiffly, and after a moment’s pause: ‘In that event, ma’am, I am left with no alternative. I cannot perform the ceremony at this hour, but if you will have the goodness to show me the licence, I will marry you to my cousin tomorrow morning.’

  A stricken silence greeted these words. Both ladies stood staring up at him. ‘L-licence?’ Kitty faltered at last.

  ‘The special licence to enable persons to be joined in wedlock without the calling of banns,’ explained the Rector. ‘Surely, my dear Kitty, you were aware that this is necessary for what you propose I should do?’

  ‘I have heard of special licences,’ she said. ‘I didn’t know—I thought—Oh, what have I done? Hannah, I am so very sorry! I ought to have asked Freddy! He would have known! I have ruined everything!’

  ‘It’s my blame,’ said Miss Plymstock gruffly. ‘The thing is we’ve never had anything but banns in my family, and it slipped my mind.’

  Kitty turned, laying a hand on the Rector’s arm. ‘Hugh, it can’t signify! You would not stick at such a trifle as that!’

  ‘If you have not obtained the necessary licence, it is quite out of my power to perform the ceremony,’ he said.

  Lord Dolphinton, who had been trying to follow this, now joined the group by the window, plucking at Miss Plymstock’s sleeve, and demanding: ‘What’s this? Does he say I cannot be married? Is that what he says?’

  ‘I am sorry, Foster, but unless you have with you a special licence it is impossible for me to marry you.’

  His lordship uttered a moan of despair. Miss Plymstock drew his hand through her arm. ‘Don’t you fly into a pucker, my dear!’ she said calmly. ‘We shall find a way to brush through it, don’t fear! We—’

  She broke off, for the door had opened, and a beam of lamplight shone into the darkening room. Mrs Armathwaite came in, carrying a lamp, which she set down upon the table, saying: ‘I’ve brought the lamp, sir, and there’s no need for you to worry yourself about dinner, for it happens that we have a nice shoulder of mutton, which I’ve had popped into the oven, and a couple of spring chickens, which will be on the spit in another ten minutes. Good gracious, what ails his lordship?’

  Dolphinton, in the act of disappearing into the cupboard beside the fireplace, paused to say in anguished tones: ‘Not here! Not seen me!’

  Kitty, who had also heard the sound of a vehicle drawing up, peered out into the dusk. ‘Dolph, don’t be afraid! It is not your Mama! It is only some gentleman—why—why, I do believe—it is Jack! Good God, what can have brought him here? Oh, I am persuaded he will be able to help us! What a fortunate circumstance! Come out, Dolph! It is only Jack!’

  Twenty

  In a very few moments, Mr Westruther, admitted to the house by Mrs Armathwaite, strode into the Rector’s parlour, and stood for a minute on the threshold while his keen, yet oddly lazy eyes took in the assembled company. They encountered first Miss Charing, who had started forward into the middle of the room. An eyebrow went up. They swept past the Rector, and alighted on Miss Plymstock. Both eyebrows went up. Lastly, they discovered Lord Dolphinton, emerging from the cupboard. ‘Oh, my God!’ said Mr Westruther, shutting the door with a careless, backward thrust of one hand.

  The Rector’s parlour was of comfortable but not handsome proportions, and with the entrance of Mr Westruther it seemed to shrink. The Rector was himself a large man, but he neither caused his room to dwindle in size, nor seemed out of place in it. But he did not wear a driving coat with sixteen capes, which preposterous garment added considerably to Mr Westruther’s overpowering presence; he did not flaunt a spotted Belcher neckcloth, or a striped waistcoat; and if the fancy took him to wear a buttonhole, this took the form of a single flower, and not a nosegay large enough for a lady to have carried to a ball. He had a shapely leg, and took care to sheathe it, when he rode to hounds, in a well-fitting boot; but he despised the white tops of fashion, and his servant was not required to polish the leather until he could see his own reflection in it.

  Mr Westruther moved forward, the big mother-of-pearl buttons on his driving-coat winking in the lamplight. He put out his hand, and with one long finger tilted Kitty’s chin up. ‘What a charming gown, my dear!’ he remarked. ‘You should always wear pink: did the estimable Freddy tell you so? He has his uses! May I kiss you?’

  ‘No, you may not!’ said Kitty, pushing his hand away.

  He laughed. ‘Ah, just so! Far too many persons present, are there not? Am I correct in supposing that you are here on precisely my own errand? Did you bring Dolphinton? A mistake, I feel—but I cannot believe that he had the wit to come of his own volition.’

  He spoke lightly, but she had the impression that under his air of mockery he was angry. This puzzled her, and had the effect of diverting her own annoyance. She said slowly: ‘No, I am not here on any errand of yours, Jack. To be sure, I have no notion of what your errand may be!’

  ‘Have you not? Then I will tell you, my love!’ He rounded suddenly upon the Rector. ‘I am so happy to have found you at home, coz! Do, pray, inform me!—Are you aware of what has been going on under your saintly nose, at Arnside, or has it escaped your notice?’

  The Rector’s eyes flashed. ‘I will rather inform you, Jack, that I find your manners offensive!’

  ‘Do you? I am glad to hear it—quite enchanted, in fact! You become almost human. In general, you know, I find you as dead a bore as any waxwork.’

  The Rector’s hands clenched involuntarily, and his austere mouth tightened. Mr Westruther, observing these unclerical signs of wrath, laughed. ‘Do you mean to have a turn-up with me? I should not advise it. You were a first-rate boxer once, but you have let yourself get sadly out of condition, I fancy.’

  ‘Don’t try my patience too far!’ said the Rector, his breathing a little quickened.

  ‘Oh, to the devil with you!’ Mr Westruther said impatiently. ‘Give me a plain answer! Do you know what has been going f
orward at Arnside, or are you sand-blind?’

  Lord Dolphinton, whose eyes had been going from one to the other of his cousins, now saw fit to explain the situation, in so far as he was able, to his betrothed. ‘That’s my cousin Jack,’ he informed her. ‘Told you about him. He’s vexed with Hugh. Hugh’s vexed with him. I don’t know why, but I wish he hadn’t come. I don’t like him. Never did.’

  ‘Let it console you, sapskull, to know that your sentiments are reciprocated to the full!’ said Mr Westruther, with a snap.

  ‘I’ll thank you, sir, to keep a civil tongue in your head!’ said Miss Plymstock, entering the lists in steely-eyed defence of his lordship. ‘If there’s anything you are wishful to say in Foster’s disparagement, say it to me—if you dare! I’ve heard a deal about you, and not a word that wasn’t true, by what I can see!’

  This unexpected attack successfully arrested Mr Westruther’s attention. Up flew his mobile brows; genuine amusement set his eyes laughing again; he lifted his quizzing-glass, and through it inspected Miss Plymstock from head to foot. ‘A formidable opponent!’ he remarked. ‘Diminutive, but pluck to the backbone! May I have the honour of knowing who you are?’

  ‘Oh, Jack, pray will you stop behaving in this odious way?’ begged Kitty. ‘It is Miss Plymstock, who is going to marry Dolph, and we are in such a dreadful fix! Only I do think that perhaps you could help us out of it!’

 
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