Cotillion, p.9
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       Cotillion, p.9

           Georgette Heyer
 

  ‘No, no!’ faltered Kitty, tightly clasping her hands. ‘Only—only a very little, sir, I promise!’

  ‘I can’t afford it!’ said Mr Penicuik, relapsing into decrepitude. ‘You’ll ruin me!’

  ‘You did say I should have a hundred pounds for my bride-clothes!’ Kitty reminded him desperately.

  He shook his head sadly. ‘You’d want more. Peacocking about the town! I know!’

  ‘No, indeed I should not!’ she assured him.

  ‘Yes, you would,’ interrupted Freddy. ‘Told you so last night!’

  ‘Oh, Freddy, do pray hold your tongue!’

  ‘Dashed if I will!’ said Freddy, feeling himself to be on firm ground. ‘You can’t buy town rig for a hundred pounds: shouldn’t think it would purchase more than one gown, myself.’

  ‘What?’ screamed Mr Penicuik.

  ‘Well, say a couple!’ conceded Freddy, willing to stretch a point.

  ‘Oh, Uncle Matthew, pray don’t heed him!’ begged Kitty.

  Perceiving that he had dealt his aged relative a severe blow, Freddy said kindly: ‘No need to put yourself about, sir: daresay m’mother will buy Kit some toggery. Always ready to sport the blunt!’

  This turned out to be a lucky suggestion, for however much he disliked spending money Mr Penicuik disliked still more to be thought impecunious. He instantly raised his drooping head, and withered Freddy with a few well-chosen words. After that, stifling another heavy groan, he desired Kitty to fetch him the box she would find in the cupboard beside his bed. This being done, he produced a key, and unlocked the case. Taking care that neither she nor Freddy should obtain a glimpse into the interesting box, he searched in it, and presently produced a roll of bills, tied up with tape. He regarded it wistfully for a moment, and then thrust it into Kitty’s hand, turning away his head, and moaning: ‘Take it! Put it up safely, girl! Oh dear, oh dear! Don’t let me see it again! To think of all that money squandered!’

  Kitty stuffed the roll into her pocket, terrified lest his feelings should overcome him and he should change his mind. She tried fittingly to express her gratitude, but he cut her short, saying that no one need accuse him of stinting her. Hardly had he spoken the words than a fresh nightmare presented itself to him, and for some agonizing minutes it seemed as though the whole scheme must fail. The problem of Kitty’s transport to London appeared to be insoluble. Her suggestion that she should travel on the stage was rejected, for, as Mr Penicuik pointed out, she had no maid to accompany her. He added that he had no doubt she expected him to engage one for her, but as such an idea had never so much as crossed her mind she was easily able to assuage his indignation. She ventured to suggest next that one of the chambermaids might go to London with her, but the thought of being obliged to pay this damsel’s coach-fare to London and back again cast him into renewed fury. A further, and most unwise, suggestion that Kitty should hire a post-chaise and pay for it with some of the money he had given her, shocked him so much that he seemed much inclined to take the bills back again. After a painful interlude, during which he reckoned up the extortionate charges of post-boys, the exact number of changes which would be necessary on the journey, and every other expense she might be expected to incur, Freddy, who was getting bored, intervened with a very simple solution. ‘Take her to town with me,’ he said.

  This offer, which, as he instantly perceived, relieved him of all the expense of his ward’s journey, found instant favour with Mr Penicuik; and he regarded Freddy with real if brief approval. It was Kitty who demurred. She could not but feel that Lady Legerwood might wish to receive notice of the impending visit—even of her eldest son’s betrothal. Both Freddy and Mr Penicuik thought this frivolous, Mr Penicuik being outraged by the suggestion that his niece might not welcome any ward of his into her family; and Freddy maintaining that the thing was more likely to come off right if his parents were taken by storm than if they were allowed time for reflection.

  This speech caused Mr Penicuik to direct one of his penetrating looks at him; but he said nothing, merely inhaling another pinch of snuff, and glancing sideways at Kitty. She still could not like the scheme, but as her fond guardian informed her that if she did not choose to go to London with Freddy she should not go at all, she was obliged to yield.

  Mr Penicuik then relapsed into profound thought, but just as the engaged couple, having exchanged speaking looks, were about to leave him, he emerged from his abstraction, and said: ‘No need to puff it off in the newspapers yet!’

  Freddy, who had no desire to advertize his engagement, accepted this with relief unmarred by any ulterior thought. Kitty, her mind more enquiring than his, looked suspiciously at Mr Penicuik, and demanded bluntly: ‘Why should we not, Uncle Matthew?’

  ‘Never mind why you should not!’ said Mr Penicuik irascibly. ‘Good God, girl, d’ye take me for a fool? Think I don’t know you’re playing deep?’ He observed, with satisfaction, the flush that coloured his ward’s cheeks, and chuckled. ‘You’re a good girl!’ he approved. ‘I daresay, if you were tricked out in all manner of finery, you wouldn’t look so ill, either. But, mind! I won’t be left with that Fish for more than a month!’

  On which valedictory utterance he dismissed his visitors, with the parting adjuration to make speedy preparations for their journey, because he had been put to enough expense already without having to provide dinner for Freddy that day.

  Once out of earshot, Kitty clasped Freddy’s arm, and said, in a rush of gratitude: ‘Oh, Freddy, how can I thank you sufficiently? I hope you may not dislike it excessively!’

  ‘No, no!’ said Freddy, always the soul of courtesy. ‘Thing was, thought it was time to give the old hunks the go-by! Never met such a cheese-paring fellow in all my life!’

  Six

  Since Miss Charing’s wardrobe was not extensive, the task of packing it was speedily accomplished, and it was not long after noon when the betrothed pair set forward upon the journey to London. Miss Charing’s almost dizzy delight at having so easily won her guardian’s consent to the visit was marred only by her fear that her hostess might not feel an equal degree of pleasure at the treat in store; and by the lachrymose conduct of Miss Fishguard, who wept without restraint while she helped her charge to pack, and asserted that she did not know what was to become of her, or how she was to look after Mr Penicuik to his satisfaction. It did not console her to be reminded that no one had ever succeeded in doing this; and the prospect of being separated from Kitty for a month so wrought upon her sensibility that she suddenly declaimed, between sobs: ‘“For all that pleased in wood or lawn, While peace possessed these silent bowers, Her animating smile withdrawn, Has lost its beauty and its powers!”’

  Kitty, always of a more practical turn of mind than her governess, wrinkled her brow at this, and said: ‘Well, but it is so horridly damp and cold at this season that the woods and lawns don’t please at all, Fish! And peace cannot possess Arnside when Uncle Matthew’s gout is so painful!’

  ‘Sometimes, Kitty,’ said Miss Fishguard tragically, ‘I wonder at you! Is “the pang which parts us from our weeping friends” unknown to you?’

  This reproach made Kitty feel so guilty that for the first stage of the journey her spirits were subdued, and she replied in monosyllables to such remarks as her companion addressed to her.

  ‘Not feeling quite the thing?’ enquired Freddy kindly.

  ‘Oh, yes, but I feel a wretch, Freddy!’ she confided. ‘Poor Fish asked me if I did not feel a pang at parting from her, and I do not!’

  ‘I should rather think you wouldn’t!’ said Freddy, without hesitation. ‘Can’t make the woman out at all, myself. Know what she said to me this morning? Asked me if I’d slept well, and when I told her that it beat me how anyone could sleep at all, with a dashed lot of cockerels crowing their heads off, she said that rural sounds exhilarate the spirit, and do something or other to languid nature!’

 
‘Cowper,’ said Kitty, in a depressed tone. ‘“Restore the tone of languid nature.”’

  ‘Well, it’s a bag of moonshine!’ said Freddy. ‘What’s more, I always thought so! Often hear of fellows ruralizing—going into the country on a repairing lease, y’know—but I never could see that it did ’em a particle of good. Well, if they’re kept awake the better part of the night by a lot of cockerels, stands to reason it couldn’t! It’s my belief, Kit, the woman’s touched in her upper works.’

  ‘No, she is merely addicted to poetry,’ explained Kitty.

  ‘Well, that just shows you!’ said Mr Standen reasonably. He abandoned the topic for one of more immediate importance. ‘How much did the old hunks give you in that roll?’

  ‘Oh, Freddy!’ exclaimed Kitty, awed. ‘Two hundred and fifty pounds! I am sure I can never spend the half of it! It is the greatest anxiety to me! I have it safe here in my reticule, but only think if I should chance to be robbed!’ She untied the strings of this receptacle, and dragged out the roll. ‘Pray, will you take care of it for me?’ she begged.

  Mr Standen was just about to decline the office when a deep and cunning thought entered his head. Having a very nice idea of the cost of feminine apparel, it did not seem to him that two hundred and fifty pounds would suffice to clothe a lady about to make her début in the first circle of fashion. He was a good-natured as well as an affluent young gentleman, and he now conceived a scheme whereby Miss Charing might be imposed upon entirely for her own benefit. Detaching a fifty pound bill from the roll, he handed it to Kitty, saying: ‘That’s the dandy! You keep this one, and I’ll give the rest to m’mother. Have all the bills sent to her, and she’ll stand huff.’

  Except for a slight feeling of alarm at carrying as much as fifty pounds in her reticule, Miss Charing had no fault to find with this arrangement, so Mr Standen stowed the roll away in his pocket, and ventured to speak of a matter which had been considerably exercising his mind. ‘No wish to pry into what don’t concern me,’ he said apologetically, ‘but can’t help wondering—Thing is, Kit, I’m dashed if I see what your lay is!’

  ‘My lay?’ repeated Kitty, glancing sideways at him.

  He blushed, and begged pardon. ‘Talking flash!’ he explained. ‘Forgot myself! What I mean is, good notion to come to town for a spell! I’m not saying it ain’t. Only thing is, what’s to come of it?’

  Miss Charing, having foreseen this question, replied: ‘One should always seize opportunity, you know. I am persuaded that once I am in London I may easily discover an eligible situation. Or I might, if I had pretty gowns, and Lady Legerwood is so obliging as to introduce me to her acquaintance, even receive an offer of marriage.’

  ‘No, dash it!’ protested Mr Standen. ‘Not if you’re engaged to me, Kit!’

  She became intent on smoothing the wrinkles from her gloves. Her colour considerably heightened, she said: ‘No. Only—If there did happen to be some gentleman who—who wished to marry me, do you think he would be deterred by that, Freddy?’

  ‘Be a curst rum touch if he wasn’t,’ replied Freddy unequivocally.

  ‘Yes, but—If he had a partiality for me, and found I had become engaged to Another,’ said Kitty, drawing on a knowledge of life culled from the pages of such novels as graced Miss Fishguard’s bookshelf, ‘he might be wrought upon by jealousy.’

  ‘Who?’ demanded Freddy, out of his depth.

  ‘Anyone!’ said Kitty.

  ‘But there ain’t anyone!’ argued Freddy.

  ‘No,’ agreed Kitty, damped. ‘It was just a passing thought, and not of the least consequence! I shall seek a situation.’

  ‘No, you won’t,’ said Freddy, with unexpected firmness. ‘That’s what you said last night. Talked a lot of stuff about becoming a chambermaid. Well, you can’t, that’s all.’

  ‘Oh, no!’ she assured him. ‘Upon reflection, of course I perceived that that wouldn’t answer. And also I shouldn’t wonder at it if Hugh was quite at fault, and I might do very well as a governess. To quite young children, you know, who don’t need instruction in Italian or Water-colour painting.’

  ‘Can’t do that either,’ said Freddy.

  ‘Well, really, Freddy!’ cried Miss Charing indignantly. ‘Pray, what concern is it of yours?’

  ‘Good God, Kit, of course it’s my concern!’ retorted Freddy, moved to express himself strongly. ‘You don’t suppose I’m going to have everyone saying you’d rather go for a governess than marry me, do you? Nice gudgeon I should look!’

  This aspect of the case had not previously occurred to Miss Charing, but she was a reasonable girl, and she at once perceived its force. ‘I suppose it would be disagreeable for you,’ she admitted. ‘Oh, well! I won’t do it, then! If all else fails, I must just return to Arnside. Whatever happens, I shall at least have had one month in London!’

  ‘Yes, but that’s just it,’ said Freddy, knitting his brows. ‘Seems to me you’ve got a devilish queer notion of London! What do you suppose will happen?’

  ‘Good gracious, Freddy, anything might happen! Well, at all events, much more than could ever happen to me at Arnside! You can’t deny that that’s so!’

  ‘No, I can’t,’ said Freddy bluntly. ‘That’s what’s worrying me. The more I talk to you, Kit, the more I wish I hadn’t been such a sapskull as to let you persuade me into this business! You’ll do something gooseish, and I shall get the blame for it.’

  ‘No, no, indeed I will not!’ Kitty said coaxingly. ‘I promise I won’t do anything you think wrong!’

  ‘Dash it, Kit, I can’t tell you how you should go on!’ protested Freddy, horrified. ‘I ain’t in the petticoat-line! Told you so at the start!’

  ‘Of course not! You forget that your Mama will take care of me. Indeed, you have no cause to be uneasy!’

  This reminder went some way towards allaying his fears, but a rare instinct for danger prompted him to demand: ‘Tell me this! Have you some scheme in your head I don’t know about?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Kitty, incurably truthful, ‘I have!’ She observed the look of a hunted wild creature in his eyes, and clasped his hand in a sustaining way. ‘But it is nothing you would dislike!’ she added. ‘I give you my word it is not, Freddy!’ She saw that this very handsome assurance had not had the desired effect, and said reproachfully: ‘Freddy! Don’t you believe me? When I have pledged you my word!’

  ‘It ain’t that I don’t believe you, Kit,’ he explained gloomily. ‘Thing is, I’m dashed sure you don’t know what I should dislike! Lord, I wish I were well out of it!’

  It was now Miss Charing’s turn to change colour. ‘You don’t mean—oh, you cannot mean to cry off ?’ she faltered.

  ‘No, I don’t!’ responded Freddy, stung. ‘Never hedged off in my life! Play or pay, m’dear girl, play or pay! All I say is, wish I hadn’t said I’d play! The next time I see that fat rascal of a landlord—!’

  ‘Pluckley?’ said Kitty, bewildered.

  ‘That’s the fellow,’ nodded Freddy, darkling. ‘That bowl of punch! Never ordered it! Oughtn’t to have had it. No, and, what’s more, oughtn’t to have let you have it either! No sense in wrapping it up in clean linen, Kit: must have been bosky, both of us!’

  Nothing would move him from this standpoint, so Kitty, wisely abandoning the attempt, applied her energies to the task of reassuring him.

  It was dusk by the time the post-chaise reached the outskirts of London, but there was still light enough for Kitty’s eagerly straining eyes to discern such unaccustomed sights as a sedan-chair borne along by two stalwart carriers; a lamp-lighter mounted upon his ladder; a man with a tray of hot pies upon his head; an urchin sweeping a crossing for a portly old gentleman in a frock-coat and a Joliffe-shallow; carts, carriages, and coaches by the score; lights illumining fascinating wares in shop-windows; smart footmen sauntering on errands for their employers; beggars holding out cupped h
ands and dogging the footsteps of any benevolent-looking citizen; and, when the chaise drew towards the more modish quarter of the town, imposing mansions lining the streets, some with flambeaux already kindled outside their doors.

  Everything was strange to Kitty, everything wonderful. She called upon Freddy again and again to identify some building, dimly seen in the gathering darkness; or to explain the significance of a man in a scarlet coat and blue breeches; and she was so much excited and astonished by the many new sights and sounds that he tried his best to satisfy her curiosity. But although he could point out to her postmen, constables, and link-boys, and supply her with such interesting items of information as that nearly all chairmen were Irish, and that the unintelligible shout which had made her jump in her seat emanated from a stage-coachman, warning his roof-passengers to keep their heads down, as his coach swept under the arch of an inn, he was not very knowledgeable about the various large buildings which caught her attention. He explained that he was not familiar with the City, but engaged himself to show her all the landmarks farther west. However, by the time the chaise drew towards the more genteel part of the town it had become almost dark, and Kitty was feeling too much stunned by the noise and the bustle all about her to do more than blink at what seemed to her bemused gaze a myriad of dancing lights.

  It was not until the chaise turned into the comparative quiet of Mount Street that it occurred to Freddy that for anything he knew he might find his parents preparing to entertain guests to dinner. He refrained from making known this fear to his companion, and was relieved, when the chaise drew up outside one of the tall houses, to see none of the signs of projected hospitality. Nor, as he presently learned from the butler, were my lord and my lady dining out that evening. Ten minutes later, having left the shrinking Miss Charing to warm her chilled feet by the fire in one of the saloons on the entrance-floor, he discovered the reason for this departure from the normal.

 
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