Cotillion, p.7
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       Cotillion, p.7

           Georgette Heyer
 

  Hugh turned to look over his shoulder, and for an instant it seemed as though he doubted the evidence of his eyes. A slight flush mounted to his cheeks; he compressed his austere lips, as though to check some hasty utterance, and with deliberation pushed back his chair, and rose. By this time, Lord Dolphinton had assimilated the fact that another of his cousins had come to Arnside. He looked rather pleased, and said helpfully: ‘Here’s Freddy! Hallo, Freddy! You here?’

  ‘Hallo, old fellow!’ responded Mr Standen good-naturedly. He drew near the fire, nodding affably to his other cousins, and levelling his quizzing-glass at the card-table. ‘You above par, George?’ he enquired, mildly surprised. ‘Never seen you play cribbage before in my life! Well, I mean to say—Cribbage!’

  ‘No, I am not!’ replied Biddenden crossly. ‘It’s Hugh!’

  ‘You don’t say so?’ said Freddy, bringing his glass to bear on Hugh’s handsome countenance. ‘Hugh full of frisk? Well, I wouldn’t have thought it of you, Hugh!’

  ‘Do not pretend to be more of a fool than God made you, Freddy!’ said Hugh coldly. ‘You know very well that George did not wish to signify that I was inebriated—if, as I apprehend, that is the meaning of the cant you choose to employ.’

  ‘Something thrown you into gloom?’ asked Freddy solicitously. ‘A trifle out of sorts? Daresay you ate something at dinner that’s making you feel queasy. Devilish bad cook, my uncle’s: never eat a meal here if I can avoid it.’

  ‘Thank you, I was never better in my life,’ said Hugh. ‘May we know what has brought you to Arnside?’

  Lord Biddenden stirred impatiently. ‘Oh, play off no airs for our benefit!’ he begged. ‘It is as plain as a pikestaff why he is here!’

  ‘I hesitate to contradict you, George, but I am far more inclined to suppose that Freddy does not know for what purpose he was invited here.’

  Mr Standen, who had turned to observe himself in the spotted mirror over the fireplace, discovered that his neckcloth needed an infinitesimal adjustment. Until this delicate operation had been performed, it was plainly useless to address questions to him. Hugh tapped his foot against the floor, his lip curling disdainfully; and Biddenden, who had himself a great inclination towards dandyism, watched with reluctant appreciation the deft straightening of a cravat which had roused his admiration at the outset. He held the poorest opinion of his cousin Freddy’s mental ability, but he always took covert note of any new fashion Freddy adopted, and very often copied it; and he would not for an instant have denied that Freddy’s rulings on such matters were worthy of respect. ‘Schultz make that coat?’ he asked.

  ‘Weston, George: never let another snyder cut my coats! Mind, if I wanted sporting toggery—’

  ‘You have not yet answered my question!’ interrupted Hugh. ‘What has brought you here?’

  ‘Hired chaise,’ said Freddy. ‘Thought of driving myself down, but too far for the tits. Bad weather, too.’

  ‘I shall not gratify you by explaining my meaning,’ said Hugh contemptuously. ‘You know quite well what it is.’

  ‘I came in my own carriage,’ offered Lord Dolphinton. ‘We changed horses twice, and I had a hot brick to keep my feet warm, and a shawl round my shoulders. I shall have another hot brick put in the carriage when I go back. I shall tell Stobhill to attend to it. My mother said that was what I should do, and I shall do it. Stobhill will know how to set about it.’

  ‘I imagine the task need not strain his powers unduly!’ said Biddenden snappishly.

  ‘Some people,’ said Dolphinton, ‘don’t heat the bricks right through.’ He thought for a moment, and added: ‘Some people heat ’em too much.’

  ‘Fact of the matter is, old fellow,’ said Freddy, entering into the spirit of this, ‘it’s a dashed difficult thing to do. You leave it to Stobhill!’

  ‘Well, that’s what I shall do,’ said Dolphinton, much gratified. ‘I’m glad you’ve come, Freddy. Sensible fellow. You going to offer for Kitty?’

  ‘That’s it,’ replied Freddy.

  ‘You know what?’ said Dolphinton. ‘I hope she takes you. Wouldn’t take Hugh. Wouldn’t take me. George didn’t offer. Couldn’t, because he’s married. Can’t think why he came. Wasn’t invited, you know.’

  Hugh said, with a certain deepening of his mellifluous voice: ‘We are to believe that, Freddy? You have indeed come for that purpose? I own, I had not thought it of you!’

  ‘Well, if it comes to that,’ said Freddy, ‘I hadn’t thought it of you! Never took you for a downy one. Daresay I was misled by those bands of yours: very likely thing to happen!’

  ‘My motive in offering the protection of my name to our unfortunate young cousin is not, I assure you, a mercenary one.’

  ‘Not our cousin,’ objected Lord Dolphinton. ‘George said she wasn’t. Said my uncle told us so. I didn’t follow it all myself, but that’s what George said.’

  No one paid any heed to this remark. Biddenden said with some asperity: ‘This is a new come-out for you, Freddy! Pray, since when have you been hanging out for a rich wife?’

  ‘Took a sudden notion to get married,’ explained Freddy, extemporizing cunningly. ‘Must have an heir!’

  ‘As your father is in the prime of life,’ said Biddenden, with heavy sarcasm, ‘and has two other sons beside yourself—’

  ‘Too young to be married,’ Freddy pointed out. ‘Well, look at it! Charlie’s up at Oxford, and Edmund ain’t even at Eton yet!’

  ‘I can tell you now that you have wasted your time! If the girl means to marry any other than Jack, you may call me a zany!’

  ‘Now, that’s where you’re wrong!’ said Freddy, speaking with authority. ‘It ain’t Jack: doesn’t seem to like him above half.’

  Biddenden gave a snort. ‘She’s piqued, I don’t doubt. That she doesn’t hanker after him you will find it hard to make me believe! As for her entertaining for an instant the thought of marrying you—! Upon my soul, I have not been so much diverted since I came to this damned, cold house!’

  ‘Lay you a monkey she takes me!’ offered Freddy.

  ‘You must be out of your senses! If you imagine she will accept you for the sake of a title, you much mistake the matter! She has refused Dolphinton already, and he, as he will be only too ready to inform you, is an Earl!’

  He had no sooner uttered these words than he regretted them. Lord Dolphinton, who had shown signs of relapsing into the state of suspended animation natural to him, responded as to a clarion-call. ‘Only Earl in the family,’ he said. ‘Thought she’d like it. Good thing to be a Countess. Don’t see it myself, but that’s what my mother says. Must know, because she’s a Countess. Seems to like it pretty well. No good Freddy’s offering. Only be a Viscount. That’s better than a Baron, but George don’t count in any case. Can’t think why he came.’

  ‘If you say once more that I was not invited,’ exploded the much-tried Biddenden, ‘I will not be answerable for the consequences!’

  ‘Well, what did you want to start him off for?’ said Freddy reasonably. ‘You might have known he’d catch his own name! That’s all right and tight, Dolph: don’t pay any heed to George! He’s a gudgeon.’

  ‘If we are to talk of gudgeons,’ countered Biddenden, ‘there is a bigger one in this room even than Dolphinton!’

  ‘Well, why don’t you sport a little blunt on the chance!’ suggested Freddy. ‘I’ll lay you handsome odds!’

  ‘The style of this conversation is quite improper,’ interposed the Rector. ‘Unless you are in the expectation of being received by my great-uncle tonight, Freddy, I suggest that we should all of us retire to bed. I will add that while I cannot but deprecate the freedom George uses in discussing such a matter I believe that whatever may be our cousin’s sentiments upon the occasion, my uncle is much chagrined at Jack’s absence from Arnside, and is very likely to wait upon the chance of his making a belated appea
rance tomorrow.’

  ‘No use doing that,’ replied Freddy. ‘He don’t mean to come.’

  ‘You are no doubt in his confidence!’

  ‘No, I ain’t in his confidence, but I’ve seen the nice bit of game he’s been throwing out lures to this month and more,’ said Freddy frankly.

  Hugh looked disgusted, and Biddenden curious. Before either of them could speak, however, the door opened, and to the surprise of everyone except Freddy, Miss Charing tripped into the room.

  She was still attired in the rather drab gown she had worn earlier in the evening, but she had dignified the occasion by tieing up her locks with a red ribbon. All trace of chagrin had departed from her face, and it was with a beaming smile that she greeted Mr Standen. ‘Freddy, how glad I am to see you!’ she exclaimed, holding out her hand to him. ‘I had quite given you up!’

  Mr Standen bowed in his inimitable style over her hand, saying: ‘Beg a thousand pardons! Been out of town! Came as soon as I had read my uncle’s letter.’

  Miss Charing appeared to be much affected. ‘You came at once! So late, and—and with the snow falling! Oh, Freddy!’

  ‘That’s it,’ agreed Freddy. ‘No sense in letting these fellows steal a march on me. Came to beg you to do me the honour of accepting my hand.’

  The hand was once more extended to him; Miss Charing said, with a sigh, and modestly downcast eyes: ‘Oh, Freddy, I do not know how to answer you!’

  Mr Standen, unprepared for this improvisation, was put out, ‘Dash it, Kit!’ he began.

  ‘For I had come to believe that I had mistaken your sentiments!’ said Kitty hastily. ‘Now I see that it is not so! You, I am persuaded, would not wish to marry me for the sake of Uncle Matthew’s fortune!’

  ‘Thing is,’ said Freddy, recognizing his cue, ‘never thought my uncle would permit it. Thought it was useless to approach him. As soon as I read his letter—bespoke a chaise and came at once! Trust you’ll allow me to speak to him in the morning.’

  ‘Oh, yes, Freddy! It will make me very happy!’ said Kitty soulfully.

  Under the bemused stare from three pairs of eyes, Mr Standen, with rare grace, kissed Miss Charing’s hand, and said that he was very much obliged to her.

  Five

  The approval and the felicitations which a young lady might have expected to have greeted the news of her betrothal to a man of rank and fortune were denied to Miss Charing. Only Lord Dolphinton was pleased; and as it soon became apparent that his pleasure had its root in the realization that not the most exacting parent could expect him to marry a lady already betrothed to another man, his congratulations were not felt to be particularly gratifying.

  Lord Biddenden’s chagrin found expression in ejaculatory half-sentences, spoken largely under his breath; and while he was very angry with Freddy, who had snatched at an heiress without the justification of being himself in straitened circumstances, he was also quite as angry with Hugh, for having done so little to make his suit agreeable to Kitty.

  Whatever of rage or mortification Hugh felt, he concealed, merely saying to Kitty in a grave tone: ‘I had not thought this of you. I beg you will consider well before you take a step I am persuaded you must regret. I shall say no more. George, I am going to bed. I daresay you too, Foster, are ready to retire.’

  But Lord Dolphinton, scenting an ally in his cousin Freddy, was recalcitrant. He said that he need not go to bed at anyone’s bidding; and went so far as to add, in a spirit of great daring, that he was going to drink the happy couple’s healths. As Hugh had dissuaded him, rather earlier in the evening, from pouring himself out a second glass of brandy and water, this announcement was tantamount to a declaration of independence, and frightened Lord Dolphinton quite as much as it surprised all those who knew how much in awe of his clerical cousin he stood. However, the Rector refused the challenge, merely favouring the backslider with a long, reproving look before bidding the company goodnight.

  This triumph so much elated Dolphinton that he became loquacious, living over again his victory with such pertinacity that Lord Biddenden was soon driven from the room.

  ‘Didn’t like it, because I gave Hugh a set-down,’ said Dolphinton, with satisfaction. ‘Silly fellow! Shouldn’t have come here.’

  Since his lordship showed every sign of settling down to make a night of it, Freddy, who wished for further guidance from his betrothed, was obliged to exert all his powers of persuasion to induce him to go to bed. But no sooner had he accomplished his design than Miss Fishguard came into the Saloon, agog with sentiment, curiosity, and a determination to chaperon her charge.

  Miss Fishguard’s method of entering any room in which she had reason to believe that a tête-à-tête was taking place, was first to peep round the door with an arch smile, saying: ‘Do I intrude?’ and then, without awaiting an answer, to trip across the floor on tiptoe, as though she feared to disturb a sick person. The habit arose partly from timidity, and partly from a resolve never to presume upon her position; and it never failed to irritate her employers. However, as Kitty was well aware, from Miss Fishguard’s fund of reminiscence, of the slights and snubs which were a governess’s portion, she creditably hid her annoyance, summoned up a welcoming smile, and announced her engagement.

  Since the news had spread rapidly through the household that the Honourable Freddy had arrived at a dissipated hour of the night, demanding Miss Charing, and that Miss had risen from her bed, dressed herself, and gone down to the Saloon immediately, the announcement was not quite unexpected. Miss Fishguard, however, greeted it with upflung hands, and ecstatic exclamations. Mr Standen’s tardy arrival and successful suit seemed to her so romantic that, inspiration failing, she was obliged to quote the words of one of her favourite poets. Twittering with excitement, as she dropped a curtsy to Freddy, she uttered: ‘Oh, Mr Frederick! It reminds one so! “He staid not for brake, and he stopp’d not for stone, He swam the Eske river where ford there was none!”’

  ‘Eh?’ said Freddy, startled.

  ‘Oh, yes, Mr Frederick, surely you remember? “For a laggard in love and a dastard in war, Was to wed the fair Ellen of brave Lochinvar!”’

  ‘Was he, though?’ said Freddy, faint but pursuing.

  Miss Charing, more familiar with the poem than her betrothed, was just about to enquire, in a practical frame of mind, whether her preceptress had the Reverend Hugh Rattray in mind, or Lord Dolphinton, when Miss Fishguard, in a gush of sensibility, said: ‘“Love swells like the Solway, but ebbs like its tide!”’

  Mr Standen, receiving only a blank look in answer to the anguished glance of enquiry he cast at Miss Charing, said politely: ‘Just so, ma’am!’

  ‘Oh!’ cried Miss Fishguard, clasping her hands over her emaciated bosom, and blushing with emotion, ‘I declare, it is the same, only in real life! Only think, Mr Frederick!—“One touch to her hand, and one word in her ear, When they reached the hall-door, and the charger was near; So light to the croupe the fair lady he swung, So light to the saddle before her he sprung!” And then, you know, he rode off with the fair Ellen, and “The lost bride of Netherby ne’er did they see! So daring in love, and so dauntless in war. Have ye e’er heard of gallant like young Lochinvar?”’

  ‘Sounds to me like a dashed loose-screw,’ said Freddy disapprovingly.

  Miss Fishguard looked rather daunted; Kitty interpolated in soothing accents: ‘It comes in Marmion, Freddy!’ and Mr Standen said, relieved: ‘Oh, Marmion!’ rather spoiling his effect by adding a moment later: ‘Who was he?’

  ‘My dearest Kitty, permit one who has ever had your welfare at heart to wish you happy!’ said Miss Fishguard, fondly embracing her pupil. She was obliged to search in the reticule which dangled from her wrist for her handkerchief, for a gush of sensibility brought the tears to her eyes. Wiping them, and dabbing at the tip of her thin nose, she added in thickened accents: ‘I do not scruple now to disclose to you the a
nxiety which has troubled my bosom since I first learned of your honoured guardian’s intentions! Delicacy forbade me to unclose my lips, but one question could not but obtrude upon my brain. In the words of that poet whom we both revere, my love, I have trembled before the thought: “What shall be the maiden’s fate? Who shall be the maiden’s mate?” If I express myself with unbecoming warmth, in telling you how thankful I am to learn that our choice has fallen upon dear Mr Frederick—“Steady of the heart, and stout of hand,” I am persuaded!—rather than upon another, I must not be understood to mean the least derogation of one whose Calling, indeed, must be thought to place him far above my criticism! Mr Frederick, most ardently do I felicitate you! You have offered for the hand of one reared “in still retreats, and flowery solitudes,” and never, I dare to assert, will you have cause to regret your choice! You will live to echo the words of the poet: “Domestic happiness, thou only bliss—!” Dear Kitty, I am quite overcome!’

  Miss Charing patted her shoulder, in a sustaining manner. ‘Yes, yes, dear Fish! But pray dry your tears! There is not the least occasion for you to weep, I do assure you!’

  Miss Fishguard, having mopped her withered cheeks, given a final sniff into the handkerchief, recovered sufficiently to bestow a watery smile and a fervent handclasp upon her young charge, and to utter: ‘“The tear that is wiped with a little address, May be followed perhaps by a smile!”’

  At this point, Mr Standen, who had been listening in growing dismay to the conversational style affected by his affianced’s preceptress, excused himself. It was not his custom to seek his couch at such an early hour of the evening, but he had rapidly arrived at the conclusion that any further colloquy with Miss Charing was likely to be punctuated by quotations from a class of persons known to him as Writing Coves, and he decided that bed before eleven o’clock was a preferable fate. He kissed Kitty’s hand, and then, impelled by the expectant look in Miss Fishguard’s eye, her cheek. Miss Charing received this embrace with equanimity, merely seizing the opportunity afforded to whisper: ‘After breakfast! On no account go to Uncle Matthew before we have consulted together!’

 
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