April Ladyby Georgette Heyer
What with the concern over Lady Cardross’s heart and pocket, the much-tried Earl almost misses the opportunity to smooth the path of true love in his marriage.
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There was silence in the book-room, not the silence of intimacy but a silence fraught with tension. My lady's blue eyes, staring across the desk into my lord's cool gray ones, dropped to the pile of bills under his hand. Her fair head was hung, and her nervous hands clasped one another tightly. In spite of a modish (and very expensive) morning-dress of twilled French silk, and the smart crop achieved for her golden curls by the most fashionable coiffeur in London, she looked absurdly youthful, like a schoolgirl caught out in mischief. She was, in fact, not yet nineteen years old, and she had been married for nearly a year to the gentleman standing on the other side of the desk, and so steadily regarding her.
She swallowed rather convulsively. The Earl had spoken quite gently, but her ears were quick to catch the note of implacability in his voice. She stole a scared look up at him, and dropped her eyes again, colouring. He was not frowning, but there was no doubt that he meant to obtain an answer to the quite unanswerable question he had put to his erring bride.
Another silence fell, broken only by the ticking of the large clock on the mantelpiece. My lady gripped her fingers so tightly together that they whitened.
‘I asked you, Nell, why all these tradesmen -' the Earl lifted the bills and let them fall again - ‘have found it necessary to apply to me for the settlement of their accounts?'
‘I am very sorry!' faltered the Countess.
‘But that doesn't answer my question,' he said dryly.
‘Well - well, I expect it was because I - because I forgot to pay them myself!'
Lower sank her golden head; she swallowed again.
‘Under the hatches yet again, Nell?'
She nodded guiltily, her colour deepening.
His expression was inscrutable, and for a moment he said nothing. His gaze seemed to consider her, but what thoughts were running in his head it would have been impossible to have guessed. ‘I appear to make you a very inadequate allowance,' he observed.
The knowledge that the allowance he made her was a very handsome one caused her to cast an imploring glance up at him and to stammer: ‘Oh, no, no!'
‘Then why are you in debt?'
‘I have bought things which perhaps I should not,' she said desperately. ‘This - this gown, for instance! Indeed, I am sorry. I won't do so any more!'
‘May I see your paid bills?'
This was said more gently still, but it effectively drove the flush from her cheeks. They became as white as they had before been red. To be sure, she had any number of receipted bills, but none knew better than she that their total, staggering though it might seem to the daughter of an impoverished peer, did not account for half of that handsome allowance which was paid quarterly to her bankers. At any moment now my lord would ask the question she dreaded, and dared not answer truthfully.
It came. ‘Three months ago, Nell,' said the Earl, in a measured tone, ‘I forbade you most straitly to pay any more of your brother's debts. You gave me your word that you would not. Have you done so?'
She shook her head. It was dreadful to lie to him, but what else was to be done when he looked so stern, and had shown himself so unsympathetic to poor Dysart? It was true that Dysart's recurring difficulties were all due to his shocking luck; and it seemed that Cardross couldn't understand how unjust it was to blame Dysart for his inability to abandon gaming and racing. That Fatal Tendency, said Mama, with resignation, ran in the family: Grandpapa had died under a cloud of debt; and Papa, with the hopeful intention of restoring the fortunes of his house, had still more heavily mortgaged his estates. That was why Papa had been so overjoyed when Cardross had offered for her hand. For Cardross was as well-born as he was wealthy, and Papa had previously been obliged to face the horrid necessity of giving his eldest daughter to the highest bidder, even (dreadful thought!) if this should prove to be a rich merchant with social aspirations. He had done so with great fortitude, and he had had his reward: in her very first season - indeed, before she had been out a month - Cardross had not only seen the Lady Helen Irvine, but had apparently decided that she was the bride for whom he had so long waited. Such a piece of good fortune had never even occurred to Lord Pevensey. It was certainly to be supposed that Cardross, past thirty, and with no nearer relation than a cousin to succeed him, must be contemplating marriage in the not too distant future, but such was his consequence that he might have had the pick of all the damsels faithfully presented by their mamas at the Queen's Drawing-rooms, and thereafter exhibited by them at Almack's Assembly Rooms, and all the ton parties. Moreover, to judge by the style of the lady who was pretty generally known to be his mistress, his taste was for something older and by far more sophisticated than a child fresh from the schoolroom. Never had Papa thought to see his little Nell do so well for the family! In the event, her success, and Cardross's generosity proved to be rather too much for him: hardly had he led his child to the altar than he suffered a stroke. The doctors assured his lady that he had many years of life before him, but the visitation had rendered him so far incapable that he had had to abandon his usual pursuits, and to retire to the seclusion of his ancestral home in Devonshire, where, it was the earnest if unexpressed hope of his wife and son-in-law, he would be obliged to remain.
Nell did not know just what Cardross had done to earn her parents' gratitude. It all came under the vague title of Settlements, and she was not to bother her pretty head over it, but to take care always to conduct herself with dignity and discretion. Mama, declaring herself to be deeply thankful, had made quite plain to her what her duty henceforward would be. It included such things as always showing my lord an amiable countenance, and never embarrassing him by asking ill-bred questions, or appearing to be aware of it if (perhaps) he was found to have formed a Connection outside the walls of that splendid house of his in Grosvenor Square. ‘One thing I am sure of,' had said Mama, fondly patting Nell's hand, ‘and that is that he will treat you with the greatest consideration! His manners, too, are so particularly good that I am persuaded you will never have cause to complain of the sort of neglect, or - or indifferent civility, which is the lot of so many females in your situation. I assure you, my love, there is nothing more mortifying than to be married to a man who lets it be seen that his affections are elsewhere engaged.'
Mama should have known, for this had been her fate. What Mama did not know, and no one must ever guess, was that her carefully instructed daughter had tumbled headlong into love with my lord at their very first meeting, when Lady Jersey, one of the Patronesses of Almack's, had brought him across the room to be introduced to her, and she had looked up into his eyes, and had seen them smiling down at her. No, Mama had no suspicion of that. Mama was all sensibility, but she knew that marriage had nothing to do with romance. It had been her dread, she confided, that Nell would be married to a man whom she could not like, but she was quite sure that Nell must like so charming and so handsome a gentleman as Cardross. And, what was more, there could be little doubt that he was disposed to hold his bride in considerable affection. He had actually desired Lady Jersey to present him to her, on that memorable evening; and what he had said later to Papa, when he had made his offer, had quite soothed a mother's anxiety. Nell would meet with nothing but courtesy and consideration at his hands.
It hadn't seemed possible to Nell, lost in love, that Cardross could have proposed to her only because she was pretty, and well-born, and rather more pleasing to him than any of the other young ladies who met his critical eye, but Mama had been right. When Nell had met my lord's half-sister and ward, a vivid brunette, not then out, but hopeful of being presented by her sister-in-law, that impetuous damsel had exclaimed, warmly embracing her: ‘Oh, how pretty you are! Prettier by far than Giles's mistress! How famous if you were to put her nose out of joint!'
It had been a dreadful shock, but Nell had not betrayed herself, which was some small consolation; and she was thankful to have been made aware of the truth before she could render herself ridiculous by showing her heart to the world, or have become a tiresome bore to my lord by hanging on him in the doting way which one short season had taught her was considered by the modish to be not at all the thing. As for putting Lady Orsett's nose out of joint - it had not taken her long to discover the identity of my lord's mistress - that ambition probably belonged, like her earlier dreams, to the realm of make-believe, and certainly seemed very far from achievement today, when my lord was commanding her to account for her debts.
‘Tell me the truth, Nell!'
His voice, quite kind, but unmistakably imperative, recalled her from her hurrying, jumbled thoughts. But it was impossible to tell him the truth, because even if he forgave her for having disobeyed him he was very unlikely to forgive Dysart, for whom, in his eyes, there could be no excuse at all. And if he refused to rescue Dysart from his difficulties any more, and made it impossible for her to do so either, what would become of Dy, or, for that matter, of poor Papa? Not so long ago he had said, a trifle grimly, that the best turn he could render Dysart would be to buy him a pair of colours, and pack him off to join Lord Wellington's army in the Peninsula; and it was all too probable that this was precisely what he would do if this fresh disaster came to his ears. Nor was there much doubt that Dysart would jump at the offer, because he had always hankered after a military career. Only Papa, with his next son a schoolboy still at Harrow, had refused even to discuss the matter; and Mama, at the mere thought of exposing her beloved eldest-born to the dangers and discomforts of a military campaign, had suffered a series of distressing spasms.
No, the truth could not be told, but how did one account for three hundred pounds with never a bill to show? There was no need for Lord Pevensey's daughter to cudgel her brains for more than a very few moments over that problem: few knew better than an Irvine how money could vanish without leaving a trace behind. ‘It wasn't Dysart!' she said quickly. ‘I am afraid it was me!' She saw his face change, an arrested look in his eyes, a hardening of the lines about his mouth, and she felt suddenly frightened. ‘Pray don't be angry!' she begged rather breathlessly. ‘I promise I will never do so any more!'
‘Are you telling me you lost it at play?'
She hung her head again. After a pause he said: ‘I suppose I should have known that it would be in your blood too.'
‘No, no, indeed it isn't!' she cried, with passionate sincerity. ‘Only it seemed stupid and prudish not to play, when everyone else did so, and then I lost, and I thought that perhaps the luck would change, but it didn't, and -'
‘You need say no more!' he interrupted. ‘There was never yet a gamester who didn't think the luck must change!' He looked frowningly at her, and added in a level tone: ‘I should be very reluctant, Nell, to take such steps as must put it wholly out of your power to play anything but silver-loo, or a pool at commerce, but I give you fair warning I will not permit my wife to become one of faro's daughters.'
‘Well, I am not perfectly sure what that is,' she said naïvely, ‘but indeed I won't do it again, so pray don't do anything horrid!'
‘Very well,' he replied. He glanced down at the bills on his desk. ‘I'll settle these, and any others that you may have. Will you bring them to me, please?'
‘Now?' she faltered, uneasily aware of a drawer stuffed with bills.
‘Yes, now.' He added, with a smile: ‘You will be much more comfortable, you know, when you have made a clean breast of the whole.'
She agreed to this, but when she presently rendered up a collection of crumpled bills she did not feel at all comfortable. There could be no denying that she had been woefully extravagant. The allowance Cardross made her had seemed so enormous to a girl who had never had anything to spend beyond the small sum bestowed on her with the utmost reluctance by her papa for pin-money that she had bought things quite recklessly, feeling her resources to be limitless. But now, as she watched my lord glance through the appalling sheaf, she thought she must have been mad to have spent so much and so heedlessly.
For some moments he read with an unmoved countenance, but presently his brows knit, and he said: ‘A two-colour gold snuff-box with grisaille paintings?'
‘For Dysart!' she explained apprehensively.
‘Oh!' He resumed his study of the incriminating bills. With a sinking heart, she saw him pick up a document headed, in elegant scroll-work, by the name of her favourite dressmaker. He said nothing, however, and she was able to breathe again. But an instant later he read aloud: ‘Singing-bird, with box embellished turquoise-blue enamelled panels - What the devil - ?'
‘It was a music-box,' she explained, her voice jumping. ‘For the children - my sisters!'
‘Ah, I see!' he said, laying the bill aside.
Her spirits rose, only to sink again an instant later when the Earl exclaimed: ‘Good God!' Peeping in great trepidation to see what had provoked this startled ejaculation, she perceived that he was holding another scrolled sheet. ‘Forty guineas for one hat?' he said incredulously.
‘I am afraid it was a little dear,' she owned. ‘It - it has three very fine ostrich plumes, you see. You - you said you liked it!' she added desperately.
‘Your taste is always impeccable, my love. Did I like the other eight hats you have purchased, or haven't I seen them yet?'
Horrified, she stammered: ‘N-not eight, Giles, surely?'
He laughed. ‘Eight! Oh, don't look so dismayed! I daresay they were all quite necessary. To be sure, forty guineas seems a trifle extortionate, but it is certainly a charming confection, and becomes you delightfully.' She smiled gratefully at him, and he took her chin in his hand, and pinched it. ‘Yes, very well, ma'am, but that is only the sop that goes before the scold! You've been drawing the bustle disgracefully, my dear. You seem not to have the smallest notion of management, and I should doubt whether you have ever kept an account in your life. Now, I am going to settle all these bills of yours and I am also going to place a further hundred pounds to your account. That should - indeed, it must! - keep you in reasonably comfortable circumstances until the quarter.'
She exclaimed: ‘Oh, thank you! How very kind you are! I will take the greatest care, I promise!'
‘I trust you won't find it necessary to exercise any very stringent economies,' he said, with a touch of irony. ‘But if you have any more bills laid by, give them to me now! I won't scold, but I warn you, Nell, it won't do to keep your money safely in Childe's while you run up debts all over town! There are to be no bills outstanding at the quarter, so if you are concealing any from me now, make a clean breast of them! If I found that you had deceived me, then, indeed, I should be angry with you, and do much more than scold!'
‘What - what would you do, if - if I did happen to owe any money at the quarter?' she asked, looking frightened.
‘Give you only enough money for such trifling expenses as must occur from day to day, and arrange that all your bills are sent to me for payment,' he replied.
‘Oh, no!' she cried, flushing.
‘I assure you I should dislike it as much as you, and feel as much humiliated. But I have seen something of what such reckless spending as you appear to delight in may lead to, and I am determined it shall not happen in my household. Now, think, Nell! Have you given me all your bills?'
The consciousness of having already deceived him, as much as his treat, coupled as it was by a certain look of inflexibility in his face, almost overpowered her. In suppressed agitation, which rendered calm reflection impossible, she said hurriedly: ‘Yes - oh, yes!'
‘Very well. We shan't speak of this again, then.'
The flurry of her heart subsided; she said in a subdued voice: ‘Thank you! Indeed, I am very much obliged to you! I did not mean to be such an extravagant wife.'
‘Nor I such a tyrannical husband. We could deal better than this, Nell.'
‘No, no! I mean, I never thought you so! You are most kind - I beg your pardon for being so troublesome: pray forgive me!'
His hand was outstretched to her, but she did not take it, only smiling nervously, and saying again: ‘Thank you! You are very good! Oh, how late it is! M-may I go now?'
His hand fell; he said in quite a different voice: ‘I am not a schoolmaster! Certainly go, if that is your wish!'
She murmured something, in disjointed phrases, about his sister, and Almack's and fled out of the room. That gesture, coming as it did at the end of a scene during which he had indeed seemed to be more schoolmaster than husband, seemed to her rather the expression of kindness than of any warmer emotion, and, with her nerves already overset, she had not been able to respond to it as, in general, she had forced herself to respond to any advance made by him. That her retreat might offend him she knew; that it could wound him she had no suspicion, having, from the start of her married life, seen in his love-making only a chivalrous determination not to betray to her that although he had bestowed his name on her his heart belonged to another.
As for Cardross, he was left with some rather bitter reflections to bear him company, and the growing suspicion that all the well-wishers who had begged him not to marry Nell had been right after all: no good could come of an alliance with an Irvine. One of his cousins, that Pink of the Ton, Mr Felix Hethersett, had put the matter to him with brutal frankness. ‘Nothing to say against the girl, dear old boy, but I don't like the stable,' had said Mr Hethersett.
Well, he had not liked the stable either. Nothing had been further from his intention than marriage with an Irvine; and nothing had seemed more improbable than a love-match. It was his duty to marry, but for some years he had enjoyed an agreeable connection with a fashionable lady of easy morals and skilful discretion, and that he should succumb to a pair of blue eyes and a mischievous dimple had been an event quite outside his calculations. But so it had been. He had first seen his Nell in a ballroom, and he had instantly been struck, not so much by her undeniable beauty as by the sweetness in her face, and the innocence of her enquiring gaze. Before he well knew what had happened, his heart was lost, and every prudent consideration thrown to the winds. She sprang from a line of expensive profligates, but he had been ready to swear, looking into her eyes, that she had miraculously escaped the Irvine taint.
She had been less than eighteen when he had married her, fourteen years younger than he, and when he found himself with a shy, elusive bride he handled her very gently, believing that tenderness and forbearance would win for him the loving, vital creature he was so sure lived behind the nervous child.
He had caught glimpses of that creature - or so he thought - but he had never won her; and the fear that he had deceived himself was beginning to grow on him. She was dutiful, even submissive; sometimes an entrancing companion, always a well-mannered one; but although she never repulsed his advances she never courted them, or gave any sign that she could not be perfectly happy out of his company. Once installed in Grosvenor Square she entered with apparent zest into every fashionable amusement, took her young sister-in-law into society, rapidly acquired a court of her own, and was by no means the sort of wife who constantly demanded her husband's escort. She was extravagant; he had today discovered that, like the rest of her family, she was a gamester; and what affection she had she appeared to lavish on her little sisters, and on her scapegrace of a brother. There had been plenty of people to tell Cardross that Nell had accepted him for the sake of his wealth. He had not believed them, but he was beginning to wonder. In her precipitate retreat from his book-room he saw only a spoilt child's desire to escape from a disagreeable schoolmaster, and never dreamed that she had fled because her feelings threatened to overcome her.
She made for the shelter of her own apartments, hoping, since she needed a little time in which to compose herself, that she would not find her dresser already there. She did not. She found her sister-in-law instead, blithely engaged in trying on one of those eight - no, nine! - modish hats.
The young Countess's apartments consisted of a spacious bedchamber, and an adjoining room, known to the household as her dressing-room but partaking more of the nature of a boudoir. My lord had had both rooms redecorated on the occasion of his marriage, nesting his bride in a tent-bed with rose-silk curtains upheld by Cupids and garlands, and hanging her dressing-room with blue and silver brocade. In this frivolous bower, of which she was frankly envious, the Lady Letitia Merion was parading between various mirrors, very well-pleased with her appearance, but unable to decide on the precise tilt at which the hat should be worn. She hailed her sister-in-law light-heartedly, saying: ‘Oh, I am glad you are come! I have been waiting for ever! Nell, I do think this is a ravishing hat, only how should one wear it? Like this, or like this?'
‘Oh, don't!' begged Nell involuntarily, unable to bear the sight of what had contributed to her late discomfiture.
‘Good gracious, what's the matter?' demanded Letty.
‘Nothing, nothing! I have the headache a little, that is all!' She saw that Letty was staring at her, and tried to smile. ‘Pray don't be concerned! It is only - I only -' She could not go on, her voice being totally suspended by the tears she was unable to control.
‘Nell!' Letty flung off the ravishing hat, and ran across the room to put her arms round her sister-in-law. ‘Oh, pray don't cry! Has something dreadful happened?'
‘No, no! That is - I have been so wickedly extravagant!'
‘Is that all? I collect Giles has been giving you a scold. Don't regard it; he will come about! Was he very angry?'
‘Oh, no, but very much displeased, and indeed it was unpardonable of me!' Nell said, drying her eyes. ‘But that was not the worst! I was obliged -' She broke off, flushing, and added in a hurried tone: ‘I can't tell you! I shouldn't have said that - pray don't regard it! I have been sadly heedless, but I shall hope to go on better now. Did you wish to speak to me particularly?'
‘Oh, no! Only to ask you if I may wear your zephyr scarf this evening, if you shouldn't be needing it yourself - but if you are in a fit of the dismals I won't tease you,' said Letty handsomely.
‘Oh, yes, do wear it! In fact, you may have it for your own, for I am sure I can never bear to wear it again!' said Nell tragically.
‘Never bear - Nell, don't be such a goose! Why, you went into transports when they showed it to you, and it cost you thirty guineas!'
‘I know it did, and he saw the bill for it, and never spoke one word of censure, which makes me feel ready to sink!'
‘For my part,' said Letty candidly, ‘I should be excessively thankful for it! May I have it, indeed? Thank you! It will be just the thing to wear with my French muslin. I had meant to try if I could persuade Giles to purchase one like it for me.'
‘Oh, no, do not!' exclaimed Nell, aghast.
‘No, I shouldn't think of doing so now that he has taken one of his pets,' agreed Letty. ‘I'm sure I never knew anyone so odious about being in debt! What shall you wear tonight? You haven't forgotten that Felix Hethersett is to escort us to Almack's, have you?'
Nell sighed: ‘I wish we need not go!'
‘Well, there's not the least occasion for you to go if you don't choose,' said Letty obligingly. ‘You may send a note round to Felix's lodging, and as for me, I daresay my aunt Thorne will be very willing to take me with her and my cousin.'
This airy speech had the effect of diverting Nell's mind from her own iniquities. Upon his marriage, the Earl had removed his young ward from the care of her maternal aunt, and had taken her to live in his own house. Mrs Thorne was a goodnatured woman, but he could not like the tone of her mind, or feel that she had either the desire or the power to control his flighty half-sister. He had been startled to discover how casual was the surveillance under which Letty had grown up, how improper many of the ideas she had imbibed; and he was still more startled when she disclosed to him that young as she was she had already formed what she assured him was an undying attachment. Jeremy Allandale was a perfectly respectable young man, but although well-connected he could not be thought an eligible husband for the Lady Letty Merion. He was employed at the Foreign Office, and although his prospects were thought to be good his present circumstances were straitened. His widowed mother was far from affluent, and he had several young brothers and sisters for whose education he considered himself to be largely responsible. The Earl thought this fortunate, for although the young man conducted himself with the strictest propriety he was plainly infatuated with Letty, and no dependence whatsoever (in her brother's opinion) could be placed on her discretion. Could she but gain control of her fortune she was quite capable of persuading her lover to elope with her. In the event, he was wholly unable to support her, so that that contingency seemed unlikely. Mr Allandale received little encouragement to visit in Grosvenor Square, but, whether from wisdom or from a dislike of enacting the tyrant, the Earl had never forbidden his sister to hold ordinary social intercourse with him. She could incur no censure by standing up for two dances with Mr Allandale; but Nell was well aware that under the careless chaperonage of her aunt she would not stop at that. She guessed from Letty's ready acquiescence in her own desire to remain at home that evening that Mr Allandale would be at Almack's, and she at once shook off her megrims, and said that of course she would take Letty there.
Mr Allandale was indeed at Almack's, and for the fiftieth time Nell found herself wondering why it was that Letty had fallen in love with him. He was a well-made man, he was even good-looking; but his manners were too formal for ease, and his conversation was painstaking rather than amusing. He was certainly solid: Nell found him a little dull. Mr Felix Hethersett, not mincing matters, said: ‘Fellow's a dead bore. Shouldn't think the affair would last.'
‘No,' agreed Nell, ‘but I must own that she has shown the greatest constancy, in spite of having been very much made up to, ever since she came out. I did venture once to suggest to Cardross that perhaps it would not be such a very bad match after all, but - but he cannot like it, and will only say that if she is still of the same mind when she is a few years older he will not then receive Mr Allandale in an unfriendly spirit.'
‘Throwing herself away,' said Mr Hethersett disapprovingly. ‘Dash it, cousin, very taking little thing! Besides being an heiress. Not but what,' he added, as a thought occurred to him, ‘very understandable you should wish to see her safely tied up to someone! I daresay she's the deuce of a charge.'
‘Oh, no, indeed she is not!' Nell said, quite distressed. ‘How could you think I wished to be rid of her? I am only too happy to have her companionship!'
Much abashed, he begged pardon. His earlier strictures on her family notwithstanding he was one of her more faithful admirers, and was generally recognized to be her cicisbeo-in-chief. She had other and more dazzling followers, but he was certainly her favourite: a circumstance which presented an enigma to the worldlings who never dreamed that the beautiful young Countess had no taste for dalliance, but smiled on Mr Hethersett because he was her lord's cousin. She treated him much as she treated her brother, an arrangement which suited him very well, since he was not, in fact, much of a lady's man, but attached himself to the court of some lady of rank and beauty as a matter of ton. A high stickler, Mr Hethersett, precise to a pin, blessed with propriety of taste, an impeccable lineage, and a comfortable fortune. He was neither handsome nor articulate, but his dress was always in the first style of elegance; he could handle a team to perfection; was generally thought to be up to every rig and row in town; and had such obliging manners as made him quite the best liked of the Bond Street beaux. The gentlemen thought him a very good fellow; the ladies valued him for two very excellent reasons: to be admired by him added to any female's consequence, and to possess his friendship was to enjoy not only the distinguishing notice of a man of the first stare of fashion, but the willing services of one whose good-nature was proverbial. For the more adventurous ladies, the dashing chippers who damped their muslins to make them cling revealingly to their exquisite forms, painted their toe-nails with gilt, and lived perpetually on the brink of social disaster, there were many more attractive blades; but young Lady Cardross was not a member of this sisterhood, and, while she naturally did not wish to be so unfashionable as to own no devoted admirer, she took care not to encourage the pretensions of any of the notorious rakes who courted her. Mr Hethersett could be depended on to gallant one uncomplainingly to quite the dullest party of the season; and there was no need to fear that the abandonment of formality would lead him to encroach on his position. He was neither witty nor talkative, but a certain shrewdness characterized him, his bow was perfection, and his grace in a ballroom unequalled. Even Letty, who said that his notions of propriety were quite gothic, did not despise his escort when she went to Almack's. Almack's was abominably slow, of course, and its haughty patronesses by far too high in the instep; but any lady refused a voucher of admission to its sacred precincts must consider herself to be socially damned. To attend the Assemblies gallanted by Mr Hethersett ensured for one the approval even of censorious Mrs Drummond Burrell, and had been known to win for a perfectly insipid damsel a condescending smile from that odious Countess Lieven.
Nell was as much astonished as she was delighted to perceive, on arrival in King Street, that her graceless but beloved brother was rather inexpertly dancing the boulanger, with a quiet-looking girl for his partner. He explained to her presently that he had never been so taken-in before. ‘Ay, you may well stare!' he said, his angelic blue eyes kindling with indignation.
She could not help laughing, but she said: ‘Oh, Dy, what a wretch you are, when you wouldn't come with me, and said wild horses couldn't drag you here!'
‘It wasn't wild horses,' he replied darkly. ‘They couldn't have done it! It was old Mother Wenlock! Beckoned to me to come up to that antiquated landaulet of hers in Bond Street this morning, and said I must dine in Brook Street to meet her niece. Of course I said I was engaged with a party of friends, but I might as well have spared my breath. Of all the devilish things, Nell, these shocking old hags who are hand-in-glove with Mama are the worst! Mind, if I'd known she meant to drag me to Almack's she could have said what she chose, I wouldn't have budged! I ain't a dancing man, you can't get a thing to drink but lemonade and orgeat - and of the two, damned if I'd not as lief drink lemonade! - and this precious niece, whom she swore was a ravishing girl, is nothing but a dowdy!'
‘Ought to have known she would be,' said Mr Hethersett, from the depths of his worldly wisdom.
‘Why?' demanded the Viscount.
In other company Mr Hethersett would have answered him with brutal frankness, but under Nell's innocently enquiring gaze his courage failed, and he said he didn't know. After all, one couldn't tell an adoring sister that no chaperon in her senses would invite Dysart to gallant a ravishing girl to a party. If the damsel in question seemed likely to attract his roving fancy she would be much more likely to forbid him the house. He might be the heir to an Earldom but it was common knowledge that his noble father (until he had the good fortune to catch Cardross for his daughter) was all to pieces, having, in vulgar parlance, brought an abbey to a grange; and no one who had observed his own volatile career could place the slightest dependence on his setting the family affairs to rights by more prudent conduct. So far from being regarded as an eligible bachelor, he was considered to be extremely dangerous, for he combined with decidedly libertine propensities a degree of charm which might easily prove the undoing of the most delicately nurtured female. He was also very good-looking, and although his critics unequivocally condemned the carelessness of his attire, it could not be denied that his tall person, with its fine shoulders, and its crown of waving golden hair, inevitably drew all eyes. He had an endearing smile, too, at once rueful and mischievous. It dawned now, for he was no fool, and he knew very well what Mr Hethersett had meant.
‘Craven!' he said challengingly.
But Mr Hethersett refused to be drawn; and since Letty came up at that moment, under the escort of Mr Allandale, Dysart allowed the matter to drop. He greeted Letty with the easy camaraderie of one who was in some sort related to her, and at once begged permission to lead her into the set which was just then forming. However unalterably devoted to Mr Allandale Letty might be, she was by no means impervious to the Viscount's charm, and she went blithely off with him, leaving her swain to exchange civilities with Nell.
Her cousin Felix watched these proceedings with a jaundiced eye. It would have been hard to have found a greater contrast than that which existed between Lord Dysart and Mr Jeremy Allandale. The one was a rather thick-set young man, whose grave eyes and regular features were allied to a serious mind, and solid worth of character; the other was a tall, handsome buck, bearing himself with careless arrogance, laughter never far from his lips, and in his gleaming blue eyes a reckless light which sprang from a disposition which was as volatile as Mr Allandale's was dependable. But in one respect they were blood-brothers: as prospective bridegrooms each in his way was wholly ineligible. Mr Hethersett, watching the start of a promising flirtation between Letty and his lordship, was much inclined to think that he had grossly failed in his duty towards Cardross. A quicker-witted man, he gloomily reflected, would have intervened before Letty had had time to accept Dysart's invitation.
Nell, too, was watching the couple on the dance-floor, not with misgiving (for although she knew that Cardross had no great liking for Dysart she also knew that Letty had no great liking for anyone but her Jeremy), but a little wistfully. When she had seen Dysart she had known an impulse to confide her troubles to him. She had no expectation of his being able to give back to her the money she had so blithely bestowed on him, but at least she might have warned him not, in future, to depend on her.
There was no further opportunity offered her for speech with Dysart. Her own hand was claimed; her place in the set was far removed from Dysart's; and by the time she left the floor he had restored Letty to Mr Hethersett's protection, and had returned to his own party.
He left it, on the flimsiest of excuses, ten minutes later: a circumstance of which she was soon made fully aware by his hostess, who sailed across the room for the express purpose of favouring her with her opinion of his manners and upbringing. Mr Hethersett could do nothing to spare her this ordeal, but when one of his and Cardross's more formidable aunts conceived it to be her duty to censure Nell for her thoughtlessness in permitting Letty to dance with Mr Allandale he came out strongly in her support, even recommending Lady Chudleigh to address her criticisms to Cardross himself.
‘Let me assure you, Felix,' said the lady in quelling accents, ‘that nothing is further from my intentions! Far be it from me to seek to make mischief!'
‘Just as well,' responded the intrepid Mr Hethersett. ‘Very likely to give you one of his set-downs!'
Nell was quite overcome by such a display of heroism on her behalf, but Mr Hethersett disclaimed heroism. Having watched through a quizzing-glass which hideously magnified his eye the retreat of the dowager, he assured Nell that he had spoken nothing more than the truth. ‘No need to fear Cardross would listen to her tales,' he said. ‘What's more, he must know you couldn't stop Letty dancing with anyone. Doubt whether he could do it himself.'
It seemed as though the Earl shared this doubt. He had not returned from a dinner given by the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks when the ladies were set down in Grosvenor Square sometime after midnight, but he visited his bride later in the morning. He found her with a breakfast-tray across her knees, the curtains of her bed drawn back in billowing folds of rosy silk. She was engaged, between sips of coffee and nibbles at a slice of bread-and-butter, in reading her correspondence. This seemed, from the litter on the counterpane, to consist largely of gilt-edged invitations, but there was a letter, crossed and recrossed, from her mama, which she was trying to decipher when Cardross came into the room. She put it down at once, and tried to tuck back the ringlets which had strayed from under her becoming night-cap of muslin and lace. ‘My lord! Oh, dear, I did not think you would be coming to see me so early, and I am dreadfully untidy!'
‘Don't!' he said, capturing her hand, and kissing it. ‘You look charmingly, I assure you. Was it amusing, your party?'
‘Yes, thank you. That is - it was just one of the Assemblies, at Almack's, you know.'
‘Not very amusing, then,' he remarked, seating himself on the edge of her bed, and picking up one of the invitation cards. ‘Nor will this be, but we shall be obliged to accept it, I suppose. She is Letty's godmother. Did Letty behave with propriety last night, or did she hang on that fellow Allandale the whole evening?'
‘No, indeed she did not! She stood up only twice with him.'
‘I am astonished to learn that she had as much moderation - and I make you my compliments: it must surely be your doing!'
‘Well, of course, I should try to dissuade her from doing what you don't like,' said Nell doubtfully, ‘but it wasn't at all necessary. Mr Allandale's scruples are so very strict that I am persuaded he would never ask her to do anything that might set up people's backs.'
‘Good God!' said his lordship. ‘What a slow-top! My dear, what does she see in him to hit her fancy?'
‘I can't think!' said Nell candidly. ‘Though I am sure he has many excellent qualities, and a most superior understanding.'
‘Superior fiddlesticks! I never found him to be anything but a dreadful bore. I wish to God she would recover from this green-sickness! It's quite impossible, you know: he has neither fortune nor expectation, and I'll swear I never saw a couple less suited to one another. I should be a villain to countenance such an attachment. If his scruples are as strict as you tell me I collect I've no need to fear he may run off with her to Gretna Green?'
‘Good gracious, no!' Nell exclaimed, startled.
‘So much, then, for my aunt Chudleigh's croakings!'
‘Your aunt Chudleigh! Oh, Giles, she was at Almack's last night, and she gave me a terrible scold for permitting Letty to dance with Mr Allandale!'
‘Oh, no! Though that is what Felix said. And also he told her to make her complaints to you, which was not very civil of him, but excessively brave, I thought!'
‘I wonder what she imagines I can do to stop Letty? Short of incarcerating her at Merion - By the by, I must go to Merion next week. Useless, I suppose to ask you to go with me?'
She showed him a face of sudden dismay. ‘Next week! But the Beadings' masquerade - !'
He raised his brows. ‘Is it so important? For my part, masquerades at Chiswick -'
‘No, indeed, but you did promise Letty she should attend it! It is the first she has ever been to, and she has had the prettiest domino made, and - and I must own I think it would be dreadfully shabby to tell her now that she cannot go!'
‘Hang Letty! Can't she - No, I suppose not. Very well: I won't tease you to go with me.'
‘I wish I might,' she said wistfully.
He smiled at her, but rather quizzically, and picked up another of the invitation cards. ‘A quadrille ball at the Cowpers'! How dashing! It will be a horrible squeeze: must we go?'
The post had brought her ladyship a polite reminder from Mr Warren, Perfumier, that a trifling account for scent, white nail-wax and Olympian Dew, was outstanding. It had lain hidden by Lady Cowper's invitation, and was revealed when the Earl picked this up. Only a few guineas were involved, but Nell instinctively put out her hand to cover it. The movement caught his eye; he glanced down, and she at once removed her hand, flushing, vexed with herself.
‘What other delights are in store for us?' he asked, picking up another card. ‘Assemblies and balls seem to be in full feather: you will be knocked up by all this raking! Don't drag me to this affair, I beg of you!'
‘That? Oh, no! It is to be a petticoat-party. You - you will be present at our own dress-party, won't you?'
There was a short silence. After that one glance the Earl had not again looked at Mr Warren's account, but it seemed to his guilty wife imperative to divert his attention from it. She said a trifle breathlessly: ‘Cardross, what a very elegant dressing-gown that is! I think I never saw you wear it before.'
‘Ah, I hoped you would be pleased with it!' he replied blandly. ‘And with me for letting you see it.'
‘How absurd you are! It is certainly most handsome.'
‘Yes, and wickedly dear - as dear as your feathered bonnet, though not, I fear, as becoming. You see how I lay myself open to strong counter-attack!'
He laughed, and tickled her cheek. ‘Foolish little Nell! Is it very shocking?'
She heaved a sigh of relief, smiling shyly at him. ‘No, indeed it isn't! Only it - it does chance to be a bill I had forgotten, and I was afraid you would be angry with me.'
‘What a disagreeable husband I must be!' he murmured ruefully. ‘Shall I pay that bill with the rest?'
‘No, please! It is a very small one - look!'
She held it out to him, but he did not look at it, only taking her hand in his, the bill crushed between his fingers, and saying: ‘You mustn't be afraid of me. I never meant to make you so! I'll pay this bill, or any other - only don't conceal any from me!'
‘Afraid of you? Oh, no, no!' she exclaimed.
His clasp on her hand tightened; he leaned forward, as though he would have kissed her; but her dresser came into the room just then, and although she quickly withdrew, the moment had passed. Nell had snatched her hand away, vividly blushing, and the Earl did not try to recapture it. He got up, his own complexion rather heightened, feeling all the embarrassment natural to a man discovered, at ten o'clock in the morning, making love to his own wife, and went away to his dressing-room.
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