Cotillion, p.5
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       Cotillion, p.5

           Georgette Heyer
 

  ‘No fear of that,’ said Freddy. ‘Very likely to have put up his back.’

  ‘Yes, perhaps that was it!’ said Kitty, brightening. ‘He is very proud, isn’t he, Freddy?’

  ‘Oh, I wouldn’t call him proud, precisely. Gets upon his high ropes now and then, but he ain’t one of your high sticklers.’

  Miss Charing meditated for some moments in silence. ‘I did not wish him to come,’ she said at last, ‘but Uncle Matthew is excessively vexed that he has not. It is the most absurd thing, but I am persuaded that Uncle Matthew had not the least notion of my marrying anyone else. He was as mad as fire when only Dolph and the Rattrays came to Arnside.’

  ‘Anyone would be,’ agreed Freddy. ‘Can’t think what possessed the old gentleman to invite ’em!’ He added modestly: ‘Or me either, for that matter.’

  ‘He has taken a nonsensical notion into his head that he must not favour any of you above another. And you know what he is, Freddy! Once he has said a thing he will never unsay it! I daresay it may not have occurred to him that Jack would not even come! It would serve him right if I said I would marry Dolph!’

  ‘You aren’t going to tell me Dolph offered for you?’ said Freddy incredulously.

  ‘Yes, he did. If I hadn’t been so angry I must have gone into whoops. Poor Dolph! he looked so miserable, and of course I knew he only did it because that odious woman compelled him!’

  ‘Now I see it all!’ announced Freddy, nodding his head several times. ‘Accounts for it! Told you I’d settled not to come, didn’t I? Well, it was Aunt Dolphinton who made me change my mind! If I hadn’t met her this morning, I wouldn’t have!’

  Kitty looked very much surprised. ‘Lady Dolphinton made you come? No, how should she do that? She cannot have wished it!’

  ‘Well, that’s it. Didn’t wish it at all. I was in Bond Street, just on the toddle, you know, when out she popped from Hookham’s Library, and stood there staring at me. Made my bow, of course: nothing else to be done! Nasty moment, I can tell you, because I was wearing a new waistcoat, and I’m not sure that it ain’t a thought too dashing. But it wasn’t that. Not,’ he added, considering the matter, ‘that I feel quite easy about it. Liked it when Weston showed it to me, but as soon as I put it on—’

  ‘Oh, Freddy, do stop talking about coats and waistcoats!’ begged Miss Charing, quite out of patience. ‘What did Lady Dolphinton say?’

  ‘Said, So you haven’t gone to Arnside! Silly thing to say, really, because there I was, in the middle of Bond Street. So I said, No, I hadn’t gone; and she asked me whether I meant to go, and I said I rather fancied not. And that’s when I took a notion she was playing some kind of an undergame, because she gave me a hoaxing sort of a smile, and said I was wise not to go, for it was all a hum, or some such thing. Seemed devilish anxious to discover whether Jack had gone, too. Looked like a cat at a cream-pot when I told her he hadn’t. Playing the concave-suit, that’s what I thought! Well, dash it, Kit, I may not be one of these clever fellows, talking about a lot of dead people out of history, but a man can’t be on the town and not smell out a bubble! Stands to reason! So I came to see for myself what was in the wind. Mistake, of course, but there’s no harm done, as it chances. All the same, Jack served me a damned backhanded turn, and so I shall tell him! A pretty fix I should have been in if I hadn’t met you!’

  ‘No, you wouldn’t,’ said Kitty. ‘Uncle Matthew cannot compel you to offer for me!’

  Mr Standen looked dubious. ‘You think he can’t? Not sure you’re right there. Fact is, I’m frightened to death of the old gentleman! Always was! I don’t say I wouldn’t have made a push to come off clear, but it would have been dashed awkward. No, the more I think of it the more I think it was a fortunate circumstance I met you. Seemed to me rather a queer start when you walked in, but I’m glad you did, very!’ This reflection had the effect of causing a problem which had for some time been floating in a rather nebulous way at the back of his mind to assume a more concrete form. He said suddenly: ‘Come to think of it, it is a queer start! What brings you here, Kit? No wish to offend you, but not quite the thing, you know!’

  Her lip trembled. She replied with a catch in her voice: ‘I am running away!’

  ‘Oh, running away!’ said Mr Standen, satisfied.

  ‘I could not bear it another instant!’ declared Kitty, gripping her hands together in her lap.

  ‘Very understandable,’ said Freddy sympathetically. ‘Most uncomfortable house I ever stayed in! Devilish bad cook, too. Not surprised the old gentleman has stomach trouble. Quite right to run away.’

  ‘It wasn’t that! Only when Uncle Matthew put me in that dreadful position, and Dolph offered for me, and then Hugh—Hugh!—I wished I had never been born!’

  Mr Standen had no difficulty in appreciating this. He said with considerable feeling: ‘By Jupiter, yes! Not to be wondered at. I wouldn’t have Hugh, if I were you, Kit. You’d find him a dead bore. Handsome fellow, of course, but too mackerel-backed, if you ask me. Never saw anyone make a worse bow. Offered to teach him once, but all he did was to look down his nose, and say it was very obliging of me, but he wouldn’t trouble me. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t. Only did it because everyone knows he’s a cousin of mine.’

  ‘Oh, he is the stiffest thing in nature!’ declared Kitty. ‘But I didn’t care for that! Only he said he would marry me because if he didn’t I should be left d-destitute upon the w-world, and it is all out of chivalry, and not in the least because he loves m-me, or wants to inherit Uncle M-Matthew’s fortune!’

  Mr Standen, perceiving that her eyes were swimming in tears, made a praiseworthy attempt to avert a scene the mere threat of which was already making him acutely uncomfortable. ‘Well, no need to cry over that!’ he said. ‘Never heard such a tale! Bag of moonshine, that’s what it is! Lord, though, to think of Hugh’s being such a Captain Sharp!’

  ‘George said it too. And Hugh means to educate me, and he says there is nothing I can do to earn my own bread, and they all of them seemed to think I should be glad to marry one of you, and I ran out of the room, and then what must Fish do but say that it was romantic! Romantic! It was too much, Freddy! I made up my mind I would just show them! So I stole the housekeeping-money, and I came here, because I know the Ashford stage stops here, and from Ashford, you know, I can get to London.’

  ‘Oh!’ said Freddy. ‘Very good notion, I daresay. At least—No wish to throw a damper, but what are you going to do there?’

  ‘That’s just it!’ said Kitty, her face much flushed, and large tear-drops trickling down her cheeks. ‘I was too angry to think of that, but I thought of it when I was walking along the lane, and I don’t know what I’m going to do, or where I am to stay, for I haven’t a friend in the world, and every word Hugh said was true!’

  ‘No, no!’ said Freddy feebly.

  Miss Charing, after an abortive search for her handkerchief, began to mop her face with a corner of her cloak.

  Mr Standen’s dismay gave place to shocked disapproval. ‘Here, Kitty, I say! No!’ he protested. ‘Take mine!’

  Miss Charing accepted, with a loud sob, the delicate handkerchief held out to her, and blew her small nose with determination. Mr Standen, reflecting that he had several handkerchiefs in his portmanteau, applied himself to the task of consolation. ‘No sense in crying,’ he said. ‘Think of some shift or other! Bound to!’

  This well-meant suggestion caused Kitty’s tears to flow faster. ‘I have been thinking and thinking, and there is nothing I can do! And, oh, I would rather die than go back to Arnside!’

  At this moment, an interruption occurred. The landlord, not unnaturally consumed with curiosity, had hit upon an excuse for re-entering the coffee-room. He came in bearing a steaming bowl of rum-punch, which he set down on the table, saying: ‘Your punch, sir. You did say nine o’clock, sir, didn’t you? Just on nine now, sir!’

 
Mr Standen could not recall that he had said anything at all, and he was about to repudiate the punch when he realized that it was clearly the moment for him to fortify himself. He was thankful to perceive that Kitty had stopped crying, and had turned her face away. He ventured to offer her a glass of ratafia. She shook her head silently, and the landlord, setting two glasses down beside the bowl, said: ‘Perhaps Miss would fancy just a sip of punch, to keep the cold out. Snowing quite fast, it is, though not laying, sir. I hope no bad news from Mr Penicuik’s, sir?’

  Freddy, who had been hurriedly inventing a tale to account for Miss Charing’s unconventional presence in the Blue Boar, now rose to the occasion with considerable address. ‘Lord, no! Nothing of that sort!’ he said airily. ‘Stupid looby of a coachman forgot his orders, that’s all! Ought to have fetched Miss Charing an hour ago. She’s been visiting: obliged to walk back to Arnside. Started to snow, so she had to seek shelter.’

  If the landlord thought poorly of a story which featured a host so lost to propriety as to permit an unattached damsel to leave his house at dusk, on foot and unescorted, and which left out of account the modest carpet-bag, at present reposing in the passage outside the coffee-room, Kitty at least had no fault to find with it. No soon had Mr Pluckley departed, than she turned to look admiringly at Freddy, and to thank him for his kind offices. ‘I had no notion you could be so clever!’ she told him.

  Mr Standen blushed, and disclaimed. ‘Made it all up beforehand,’ he explained. ‘Daresay you wouldn’t think of it, but the fellow was bound to start nosing out your business. Oughtn’t to be out alone, you know. Ought to have brought the Fish with you.’

  ‘But, Freddy, you must see that I couldn’t run away to London if I brought Fish! She would never consent!’

  ‘Mustn’t run away to London,’ said Freddy. ‘Been thinking about that, and it won’t do. Pity, but there it is!’

  ‘You don’t feel that there might be something I could do to support myself?’ asked Miss Charing, with a last flicker of hope. ‘Of course, I don’t wish to starve, but do you think I should? Truthfully, Freddy?’

  Keeping his inevitable reflections to himself, Mr Standen lied manfully. ‘Sure of it!’ he said.

  ‘Not if I became a chambermaid!’ said Kitty, suddenly inspired. ‘Hugh says I am too young to be a housekeeper, but I could be a chambermaid!’

  Mr Standen brought her firmly back to earth. ‘No sense in that. Might as well stay at Arnside. Better, in fact.’

  ‘Yes, I suppose I might,’ she said despondently. ‘Only I would like so much to escape! I do try not to be ungrateful, but oh, Freddy, if you knew what it is like, keeping house for Uncle Matthew, and reading to him, and pouring out his horrid draughts, and never speaking to anyone but him and Fish! It makes me wish he never had adopted me!’

  ‘Must be devilish,’ nodded Mr Standen, ladling punch into one of the glasses. ‘Can’t think why he did adopt you. Often puzzled me.’

  ‘Yes, it used to puzzle me too, but Fish thinks that he formed a lasting passion for my mama.’

  ‘Sort of thing she would think,’ remarked Freddy. ‘If you ask me, he never formed a lasting passion for anyone but himself. I mean, look at him!’

  ‘Yes, but I do feel she may be right,’ Kitty insisted. ‘He hardly ever speaks of her, except when he says I am not nearly as pretty as she was, but he has her likeness. He keeps it in his desk, and he showed it to me once, when I was a little girl.’

  ‘Well, I wouldn’t have believed it!’ said Freddy, apparently convinced.

  ‘No, but I fancy it was so. Because George, you know, thought I was Uncle Matthew’s daughter. Hugh said that he never did so, but I have a strong notion he did!’

  ‘Shouldn’t think so at all,’ said Freddy. ‘George might, because he’s a gudgeon. Daresay Dolph might, but nobody else would. In fact, Dolph wouldn’t either, because he don’t think anything. If you was my uncle’s daughter, he wouldn’t behave so shabbily. Wouldn’t want to leave his money to one of us, either.’

  ‘N-no. I daresay he might wish me to marry one of his great-nephews, but he wouldn’t cut me off without a penny if I refused, would he?’

  ‘He don’t mean to do that?’ exclaimed Freddy, shocked.

  She nodded, and gave a rather watery sniff into his handkerchief. ‘Yes, he does, and of course I quite see that I can never hope to form an eligible connection if I’m to be a pauper. It makes me feel horridly low!’

  ‘What you need, Kit, is a drop of something to put some heart into you,’ said Freddy decidedly. ‘If you won’t take some ratafia—mind, I don’t say I blame you!—you’d better have a mouthful of this. It ain’t the right thing, but who’s to know?’

  Miss Charing accepted a half-filled glass, and sipped cautiously. The pungency of the spirit was inclined to catch the back of her throat, but the sweetness and the unmistakable tang of lemon-juice reassured her. ‘I like it,’ she said.

  ‘Yes, but don’t go telling my uncle, or the Fish, that you’ve been drinking punch with me,’ he warned her.

  She assured him that she would not; and since she was now quite warm, and was finding the settle uncomfortable, joined him at the table, and sat there, sipping her punch, and brooding over her unhappy circumstances. Freddy, who was grappling with thoughts of his own, rather absent-mindedly refilled both glasses. A frown began to gather on his brow. He broke the silence by demanding suddenly: ‘Who’ll inherit the ready if you don’t marry one of us, Kit?’

  ‘Uncle Matthew says he shall leave it to the Foundling Hospital,’ replied Kitty. ‘All of it!’

  ‘He does, does he? Seems to me Dolph ain’t the only one who’s queer in his attic!’ said Mr Standen. He stared fixedly at the play of the candlelight on the gold liquid in his glass. ‘Wonder if Jack knows that?’ he said, in a ruminative tone.

  ‘You may depend upon it that he does, for I am sure Uncle Matthew would not tell George and Hugh more than he has told Jack. And I am excessively happy to think that it has not weighed with him!’

  ‘Wonder if he’s playing a deep game?’ said Mr Standen, pursuing his own meditations. ‘No saying what might be in his head: a curst rum touch, Jack! Shouldn’t have thought he’d whistle a fortune down the wind, though. Rather fancy he counted the old gentleman’s rolls of soft his own. Never knew such a fellow for wasting the ready! Played wily beguiled with his own fortune.’ He encountered a startled look of enquiry from Miss Charing, and added succinctly: ‘Gamester. Tulip of the Turf. Seems to have come off all right so far, but m’father says he’ll end under the hatches. Very downy one, m’father!’ He dwelt for a moment on the percipience of Lord Legerwood, while Miss Charing eyed him with hostility. Refreshing himself with some more punch, he said: ‘May be shamming it. Don’t care to have his hand forced. Must know you wouldn’t take Dolph or Hugh. Must know I ain’t hanging out for a rich wife. Means to steer the old gentleman to Point Non-Plus.’ He drained his glass, and set it down. Still more profound thoughts deepened the frown on his brow. ‘Same time—may have come about again. Fresh as ever. Don’t need the ready. Don’t want to be married. Drop the handkerchief when he chooses.’

  ‘Drop—Drop—?’ stammered Kitty. ‘Do you mean—he thinks I w-would pick it up w-whenever—Oh!’

  Much confused, Mr Standen begged pardon. ‘Thinking to myself!’ he explained.

  She paid no heed to this, but said fiercely: ‘Do you mean that?’

  ‘No, no! That is—couldn’t blame him, Kit! Handsome phiz, you know—devil of a Corinthian—never at a stand! Daresay you don’t know it, but the fact is any number of caps set at him! High-fliers, too. Queer creatures, females,’ mused Mr Standen, shaking his head. ‘Fellow’s only got to be a rake to have ’em all dangling after him. Silly, really, because it stands to reason—Well, never mind that!’

  ‘Good gracious, Freddy, as though I was not well-aware that Jack is a shocking fli
rt!’ said Kitty untruthfully, but with spirit. ‘I have not the least doubt that he flirts with all the prettiest ladies in London! Which makes it so particularly stupid and—and diverting of Uncle Matthew to suppose that he wished to offer for me! Indeed, I can’t imagine why anyone should think he would do so. I should be astonished to learn that he regards me as anything other than a dowdy schoolgirl!’

  ‘Yes, I should be too,’ agreed the Job’s comforter on the other side of the table.

  Miss Charing swallowed another mouthful of punch. A gentle glow was spreading through her veins, dispelling the melancholy which had possessed her. It would have been too much to have said that she was restored to happiness, but she no longer despaired. A certain exhilaration infused her brain, which seemed all at once to be able quite easily to master difficulties that, a few minutes before, had appeared so insoluble. She sat bolt upright in her chair, staring straight ahead, the fingers of one hand tightening unconsciously round her tumbler. Mr Standen, glad to be left in peace to wrestle with the second of the problems confronting him, meditatively rubbed the rim of his quizzing-glass up and down the bridge of his nose.

  ‘Freddy!’ said Miss Charing suddenly, turning her expressive eyes towards him.

  He gave a slight start, and let his quizzing-glass fall. ‘Thinking of something else!’ he excused himself.

  ‘Freddy, you are quite sure you don’t want to marry me, aren’t you?’

  He looked a little alarmed, for she spoke with a degree of urgency which made him feel uneasy. ‘Yes,’ he said. He added apologetically: ‘Very fond of you, Kit, always was! Thing is, not a marrying man!’

  ‘Then, Freddy, will you be so very obliging as to be betrothed to me?’ said Miss Charing breathlessly.

  Four

  For a stunned moment Mr Standen stared into the dark eyes fixed so beseechingly on his face. His horrified gaze, wavering, fell upon the tumbler, still clasped in Miss Charing’s hand. A certain measure of relief entered his face; he removed the half-empty glass, and set it down safely out of Miss Charing’s reach. ‘Ought never to have given it to you!’ he said, in self-accusatory tones.

 
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