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As far as it was possible for an elderly gentleman suffering from dyspepsia and a particularly violent attack of gout to take pleasure in anything but the alleviation of his various pains the Earl of Wroxton was enjoying himself. He was engaged on the agreeable task of delivering himself of a diatribe on the shortcomings of his heir. To the uninitiated his strictures must have seemed unjust, for Viscount Desford bore the appearance of a son of whom any father must have been proud. In addition to a goodlooking countenance, and a lithe, athletic figure, he had the easy manners which sprang as much from an innate amiability as from his breeding. He had also a considerable store of patience, and a sense of humour which showed itself in the smile which lurked in his eyes, and which was thought by a great many persons to be irresistible. His father was not of their number: when a victim of gout, he thought it exasperating.
The month was July, but the weather was so far from sultry that the Earl had caused a fire to be kindled in his library. On either side of the hearth he and his heir were seated, the Earl with one heavily bandaged foot on a stool, and his heir (having discreetly edged his chair away from the warmth of the smouldering logs) at his graceful ease opposite him. The Viscount was wearing the coat, the buckskin breeches, and the topboots which were the correct morning-attire for any gentleman sojourning in the country, but a certain elegance, deriving from the cut of his coat, and the arrangement of his neckcloth, gave his father an excuse for apostrophizing him as a damned dandy. To which he responded, in mild protest: ‘No, no, sir! The dandy-set would be shocked to hear you say so!'
‘I collect,' said his father, glaring at him, ‘that you call yourself a Corinthian!'
‘To own the truth, sir,' said the Viscount apologetically, ‘I don't call myself anything!' He waited for a moment, watching with as much sympathy as amusement the champing of his parent's jaws, and then said coaxingly: ‘Now, come, Papa! What have I done to earn such a trimming from you?'
‘What have you done to earn praise from me?' instantly countered the Earl. ‘Nothing! You're a skitterbrain, sir! A slibberslabber here-and-thereian, with no more thought for what you owe your name than some rubbishing commoner! A damned scattergood and you've no need to remind me that you're not dependent on me for the money you waste on your horses, and your betting, and your bits of muslin, for I'm well aware of it, and what I said at the time, and say now, and always shall say is that it was just like your great-aunt to leave her fortune to you, and exactly what might have been expected of such a shuttlehead as she was! As well have handed you a carte blanche to commit every sort of of extravagant folly! But on that head,' said his lordship inaccurately, but with perfect sincerity, ‘I shall say nothing! She was your mother's aunt and that circumstance seals my lips.'
He paused, throwing a challenging glance at his heir, but the Viscount merely said, with becoming meekness : ‘Just so, Papa!'
‘Had she stipulated that her fortune was to be used for the support of your wife and family I should have thought it a very proper bequest,' announced his lordship, adding, however: ‘Not that I was not at that time, and at this present, able and willing to increase your allowance to enable you to meet the added expenses consequent on your entry into the married state.'
He paused again, and the Viscount, feeling that some comment was expected, said politely that he was much obliged to him.
‘Oh, no, you're not!' said his lordship grimly. ‘And, what's more, you won't be until you provide me with a grandson, no matter how fast your great-aunt's fortune burns in your pockets! Upon my word, a pretty set of children I have!' he said, suddenly enlarging his scope. ‘Not one of you cares a straw for the Family! At my age I might have expected to have had a score of grandchildren to gladden my last years! But have I? No! Not one!'
‘In fact you have three,' replied the Viscount disconcertingly. ‘Not that it has ever seemed to me that they gladdened you precisely, but I do feel it to be only just to Griselda that her offspring should be mentioned!'
‘Girls!' snapped the Earl, sweeping them aside with a contemptuous gesture. ‘I take no account of them! Besides, they're Broxbourne brats! What I want is sons, Ashley! Carring-tons, to succeed to our Name, and our Honours, and our Tradition!'
‘But scarcely a score of them!' protested the Viscount. ‘One must be reasonable, sir, and even if I had obliged you by marrying when I was twenty, and my unfortunate wife had presented me with twins every year, you must still have been at least two short of your expectation setting aside the probability that there would have been several girls amongst such a bevy of grandchildren.'
This attempt to win his parent out of his ill-humour might have succeeded (for the Earl was fond of the ridiculous) had not a sudden twinge in his afflicted foot caused him to wince, and to utter in a menacing voice: ‘Don't be impertinent, sir! I would remind you that you I thank God! are not my only son!'
‘No,' agreed the Viscount, with unruffled cordiality. ‘And while I can't but feel that Simon is too young to be setting up his nursery I have great hopes that Horace may oblige you when the Occupation ends, as, from all accounts, it will do in the not too far distant future and he returns to us.'
‘Horace!' uttered his lordship. ‘I may think myself fortunate if he doesn't come home with some French hussy on his arm!'
‘Oh, I don't think that very likely!' said the Viscount. ‘He is not at all partial to foreigners, sir, and quite as mindful of what is due to the Family as you are.'
‘I shan't be alive to see it,' said the Earl, seeking refuge in decrepitude, but slightly damaging his effect by adding an acrimonious rider: ‘Much any of you will care!'
The Viscount laughed, but with a good deal of affection. ‘No, no, Papa!' he said. ‘Don't try to pitch the fork to me! I haven't been on the town for nine years and intimately acquainted with you for twenty-nine years! without learning when a man is trying to come crab over me! Good God, sir, you're all skin and whipcord saving only a tendency to gout, which you may easily overcome by not drinking the best part of two bottles of port at a sitting and you'll hold for a long trig! Long enough, I've little doubt, to rake down a son of mine as you're raking me down today!'
The Earl could not help being gratified to know that his heir considered him to be in very good condition, but he thought it proper to say austerely that he neither understood nor approved of the cant expressions so deplorably in use amongst the young men of the day. He toyed for a moment with the impulse to inform the Viscount, in forthright terms, that when he desired his opinion of his drinking habits he would ask him for it, but discarded this notion, because he knew that no dependence could be placed on Ashley's receiving a snub in filial silence, and he had no wish to embark on an argument in which he stood on very unreliable ground. Instead, he said: ‘A son of yours? I want no base-born brats, I thank you, Desford though I daresay you have a score any number of them!' he amended hastily.
‘Not to my knowledge, sir,' said the Viscount.
‘I'm glad to hear it! But if you had agreed to the marriage I planned for you a son of yours might have been sitting on my knee at this moment!'
‘I hesitate to contradict you, sir, but I find myself quite unable to believe that any grandchild attempting at this moment to sit on your knee would have met with anything but a severe rebuff.'
The Earl acknowledged this hit by giving a bark of laughter, but said: ‘Oh, well, there's no need for you to take me up so literally! The thing is that you behaved very badly when you refused to make Henrietta Silverdale an offer! Never did I think to meet with such ingratitude, Desford! Anyone would have supposed that I had chosen a bride for you whom you disliked, or with whom you were unacquainted which, I may tell you, was not an uncommon thing to happen in my day! Instead of that, I chose for you a girl with whom you had been closely acquainted all your life, and to whom I believed you to be sincerely attached. I might have looked much higher, but all I desired was your happiness! And what has been my reward? Tell me that!'
‘Oh, for God's sake, sir!' exclaimed the Viscount, for the first time showing impatience. ‘Must you hark back to what happened nine years ago? Can't you believe that Hetta had no more wish to marry me than I had to marry her?'
‘No and if you mean to tell me you were not attached to her you may as well spare your breath!'
‘Of course I was attached to her as though she had been my sister! I still am: we are the best of good friends, but a man don't wish to marry his sister, however fond he may be of her! The truth of the matter is, Papa, that you and Sir John hatched the scheme between you though how the pair of you could be such gudgeons as to suppose that to rear us almost as though we had been brother and sister would further this precious scheme is something that has me in a puzzle to this day! No, no, don't rattle me off for calling you a gudgeon! Recollect that I did say it has me in a puzzle!'
‘Ay, you've a soft tongue, and think to turn me up sweet with it!' growled his father.
‘Alas, I know well I can't!' said the Viscount ruefully. ‘But I wish you will tell me, sir, why you, who didn't become riveted until you were past thirty, were so determined to see me leg-shackled before I had even attained my majority?'
‘To keep you out of mischief !' replied the Earl, with more promptitude than wisdom.
‘Oho!' said the Viscount, quizzing him wickedly. ‘So that was it, was it? Well, I've long suspected that you were not in your day such a pattern of rectitude as you would have us believe!'
‘Pattern of rectitude! Of course I was no such thing!' said the Earl, repulsing the suggestion with loathing.
‘Of course you weren't!' said the Viscount, laughing at him.
‘No! I sowed my wild oats just as any youngster must, but I never consorted with rake-shames!'
This announcement put a quick end to the Viscount's laughter. He directed a searching look at his father from under suddenly frowning brows, and demanded: ‘What's this? If it is to my address, you'll permit me to tell you that you've been misinformed, sir!'
‘No, no!' replied his lordship testily. ‘I'm talking of Simon, muttonhead!'
‘Simon! Why, what the devil has he been doing to provoke you?'
‘Don't tell me you aren't very well aware that he's for ever on the spree with a set of rascally scrubs, knocking up disgraceful larks, committing every sort of extravagant folly, creating riot and rumpus '
‘Well, I do tell you so, sir!' said the Viscount, interrupting this wholesale indictment without ceremony. ‘I don't see much of him, but you may depend upon it that I should hear of it fast enough if he'd got into the sort of company you're describing! Good God, anyone to hear you would suppose Simon had joined the Beggars' Club, or ended up each night either in the Finish, or in a Round-house! I daresay you wouldn't care for the set he runs with I don't care for them myself, but that's because I'm nine-and-twenty, not three-and-twenty, and have outgrown the restiness of my salad days. But they're not rascally, and they're certainly not scrubs! Coming it much too strong, Father, believe me!'
‘It's a pity you don't see much of him!' countered the Earl. ‘I should have known better than to think you might make it your business to do so!'
‘Well, yes, I think you should!' replied the Viscount frankly.
‘I take it,' said the Earl, visibly controlling his temper, ‘that I should be wasting my breath if I asked you to take the young wastrel in hand!'
‘You would indeed, Papa! Lord, what heed do you think he would pay to me?'
‘Oh, well,' replied his lordship grudgingly, ‘for all your faults you're good ton, you're a member of the Four-horse Club, and thanks to my training! a pretty accomplished fencer. They tell me that the younger men are inclined to follow your lead, so there's no saying but what you might have more influence over him than I have.'
‘If you had had any brothers, Papa,' said the Viscount, smiling, ‘you would know that the junior members of the fraternity are very much more likely to run directly counter to what their eldest brother advises than to follow his lead, even if he were a far more notable sportsman than I am! I am sorry to disoblige you, but I must firmly decline to meddle in Simon's career. I don't think there's the least need for anyone to do so, but if you do think so it's for you to curb his activities, not me!'
‘How the devil can I curb them?' demanded his father explosively. ‘He's a curst care-for-nobody, and although you may consider me a gudgeon I promise you I'm not such a gudgeon as to stop his allowance! A pretty thing it would be if he got himself rolled-up and I were forced to rescue him from some sponging-house! Not but what it would do him good to be locked up!'
‘You know, sir, you are taking much too gloomy a view of young Simon's prospects! I wish you won't tease yourself over him even if he has put you all on end!'
‘I might have known you wouldn't tease yourself !' said the Earl, assailed by another stab of pain. ‘You're all alike! Why I've been saddled with a pack of selfish, worthless, ungrateful brats I shall never know! Your mother spoilt you to death, of course, and I was fool enough to let her do it! As for you, damme if you're not the worst of the bunch! I wash my hands of you, and the sooner you take yourself off the better pleased I shall be! I don't know what brought you down here, but if it was to see me you might have spared yourself the pains! I don't want to see your face again!'
The Viscount got up, saying with perfect affability: ‘Well, in that case I'll remove it from your sight, sir! I won't ask you for your blessing, for your sense of propriety would compel you to bestow it on me, and I'm sure it would choke you to utter the words! I won't even offer to shake hands with you but that's to save myself a wounding snub!'
‘Jackanapes!' said his parent, thrusting out his hand.
The Viscount took it in his, dropped a respectful kiss on it, and said: ‘Take care of yourself, Papa! Goodbye!'
The Earl watched him cross the room to the door, and, as he opened it, said, in the voice of a man goaded beyond endurance: ‘I suppose you came home because you wanted something!'
‘I did!' replied the Viscount, throwing him a look brimful of mockery over his shoulder. ‘I wanted to see Mama!'
He then withdrew in good order, firmly closing the door on the explosion of wrath which greeted this parting shot.
When he reached the hall of the house he found that the butler was there, and encountered such a glance of mournful sympathy from this aged and privileged retainer that he broke into a chuckle, saying: ‘You're looking your last at me, Pedmore! My father has cast me out! He says I'm a worthless skitterbrain, and a jackanapes, besides a number of other things which I can't at the moment remember. Would you have believed he could be so unfeeling?'
The butler clicked his tongue disapprovingly, and shook his head. Sighing deeply, he replied: ‘It's the gout, my lord. It always makes him mifty!'
‘Mifty!' said the Viscount. ‘What you mean is that it sets him at dagger-drawing with anyone unwise enough to cross his path, you old humbugger!'
‘It would not become me to agree with your lordship, so I shall hold my peace,' said Pedmore severely. ‘And, if I may venture to proffer a word of advice being as I have known your honoured parent for many years longer than you have, my lord I would respectfully beg you not to set any store by anything he may say when he's in the gout, for he doesn't mean it not if it's you! And if you was to take snuff he'd be regularly blue devilled he would indeed, my lord, whatever he may have said to you!'
‘Bless you, Pedmore, do you think I don't know it?' said the Viscount, smiling affectionately at him. ‘You must think I'm a lunkhead! Where shall I find my mother?'
‘In her drawing-room, my lord.'
The Viscount nodded, and ran lightly up the broad stairway. His mother greeted his entrance to her sanctum with a warm smile, and a hand held out to him. ‘Come in, dearest!' she said. ‘Have you been having a dreadful peal rung over you?'
He kissed her hand. ‘Lord, yes!' he said cheerfully. ‘He rattled me off in famous style! In fact, he has informed me that he doesn't wish to see my face again.'
‘Oh, dear! But he doesn't mean it, you know. Yes, of course you do: you always understand things without having to have them explained to you, don't you?'
‘Do I? It seems very unlikely! And I don't think it can be true, for both you and old Pedmore seem to believe that I must need reassurance! I don't, but I claim no extraordinary powers of understanding for that! No one who was not a confirmed sapskull could suppose being intimately acquainted with Papa! that his violent attacks spring from anything but colic and gout! I feared the worst when I saw him partake so lavishly of the curried crab at dinner last night; and my fears were confirmed when he embarked on the second bottle of port. Pray don't think me captious, Mama, but ought he to regale himself quite so unwisely?'
‘No,' replied Lady Wroxton. ‘It is very bad for him, but it is quite useless to remonstrate with him, for it only puts him out of temper to be offered the wholesome dishes Dr Chettle pre-scribes, when he has expressed a desire for something most indigestible, and you know what he is, Ashley, when he is thwarted! And when he flies into one of his odd rages!'
‘I know!' said the Viscount, smiling.
‘It is even worse for him when he does that, because he becomes exhausted, and then falls into a fit of dejection, and says that he is burnt to the socket, and has nothing to do but to wind up his accounts. And it is quite as bad for the household, for even Pedmore, who is so very devoted to us, doesn't like to have things thrown at him particularly when it chances to be mutton-broth.'
‘As bad as that?' said the Viscount, considerably startled.
‘Oh, not always!' his mother assured him, in a comfortable voice. ‘And he is in general very sorry afterwards, and tries to make amends for having behaved with so little moderation. I daresay he will be a trifle twitty tonight, but I have the greatest hope that tomorrow he will be content to eat a panada, or a boiled chicken. So you have no need to look so concerned, dearest: very likely it will be several weeks before he indulges himself again with his favourite dishes.'
‘I am concerned for you, Mama, far more than I am for him! I don't know how you are able to bear your life! I could not!'
‘No, I don't suppose you could,' she responded, looking at him in tolerant amusement. ‘You weren't acquainted with him when he was young, and naturally you were never in love with him. But I was, and I remember how gay, and handsome, and dashing he used to be, and how very happy we were. And we still love one another, Ashley.'
He was frowning a little, and asked abruptly: ‘Does he subject you to that sort of Turkish treatment, Mama?'
‘Oh, no, never! To be sure, he does sometimes scold me, but he has never thrown anything at me not even when I ventured to suggest that he should add some rhubarb and water to his port, which is an excellent remedy for a deranged stomach, you know, but he would have none of it. In fact, it put him into a regular flame.'
‘I'm not surprised!' said the Viscount, laughing at her. ‘You almost deserved to have it thrown at you, I think!'
‘Yes, that's what he said, but he didn't throw it at me. He burst out laughing, just as you did. What made him suddenly so vexed, dearest? Did you say something to make him pucker up? I know you haven't done anything to displease him, for he was delighted to see you. Indeed, that is why we had the dressed crab, and he made Pedmore bring up the best port.'
‘Good God, in my honour, was it? Of course, I dared not tell him so, but I'm not at all fond of port, and I had to drink the deuce of a lot of it. As for what vexed him, it was certainly nothing I said, for not an unwise word passed my lips! I can only suppose that the crab and the port were responsible.' He paused, thinking of what had passed in the library, the frown returning to his brow. He turned his eyes towards his mother, and said slowly: ‘And yet Mama, what made him hark back, after all this time, to the match he tried to make between Hetta and me, when I was twenty?'
‘Oh, did he do so? How unfortunate!'
‘But why did he, Mama? He hasn't spoken of it for years!'
‘No, and that is what one particularly likes about him. He has a shockingly quick temper, but he never sinks into the mops, or rubs up old sores. The thing is, I fear, that it has all been brought back to his mind because he has been told that at last dear Henrietta seems likely to contract a very eligible alliance.'
‘Good God!' exclaimed the Viscount. ‘You don't mean it! Who's the suitor?'
‘I shouldn't think you know him, for he has only lately come into Hertfordshire, and I fancy he very rarely goes to London. He is old Mr Bourne's cousin, and inherited Marley House from him. According to Lady Draycott, he is an excellent person, of the first respectability, a thousand agreeable talents, and most distinguished manners. I haven't met him myself, but I do hope something may come of it, for I have the greatest regard for Henrietta, and have always wished to see her comfortably established. And, if Lady Draycott is to be believed, this Mr Mr Nethersole no, not Nethersole, but some name like that seems to be just the man for her.'
‘He sounds to me like a dashed dull dog!' said the Viscount.
‘Yes, but persons of uniform virtues always do sound dull, Ashley. It seems to me such an odd circumstance! However, we must remember that Lady Draycott is not wholly to be relied on, and I daresay she has exaggerated. She thinks everyone she likes a pattern-saint, and everyone she doesn't like a rascal.' Her eyes twinkled. ‘Well, she says you are a man of character, and very well conducted!'
‘Much obliged to her!' said the Viscount. ‘To think she should judge me so well!'
She laughed. ‘Yes, indeed! It is a striking example of the advantage of having engaging manners. What a sad reflection it is that to have powers of captivation should be of much more practical use than worthiness!' She leaned forward to pinch his chin, her eyes full of loving mockery. ‘You can't bamboozle me, you rogue! You are a here-and-thereian, you know, exactly as I am persuaded Papa told you! I wish you might form a tendre for some very nice girl, and settle down with her! Never mind! I don't mean to tease you!'
She withdrew her hand, but he caught it, and held it, saying, with a searching look: ‘Do you, Mama? Did you, perhaps, wish me to offer for Hetta, nine years ago? Would you have liked her to have been your daughter-in-law?'
‘What a very odd notion you have of me, my love! I hope I am not such a pea-goose as to have wished you to marry any girl for whom you had formed no lasting passion! To be sure, I have a great regard for Hetta, but I daresay you would not have suited. In any event, that has been past history for years, and nothing is such a sad bore as to be recalling it! I promise you, I shall welcome the bride you do choose at last with as much pleasure as I shall attend Hetta's wedding to the man of her choice.'
‘What, to the pattern-card whose name you can't remember? Are the Silverdales at Inglehurst? I haven't seen Hetta in town for weeks, but from what she told me when we met at the Castlereaghs' ball I had supposed that she must by now have been fixed at Worthing, poor girl!'
‘Lady Silverdale,' said his mother, in an expressionless voice, ‘finding that the only lodging she could tolerate in Worthing was not available this summer, has recollected that the sea-air always makes her bilious, and has chosen to retire to Inglehurst rather than to seek a lodging at some other resort.'
‘What an abominable woman she is!' said the Viscount cheerfully. ‘Oh, well! I daresay Hetta will be better off with her pattern-card! I'll drop in at Inglehurst tomorrow, on my way back to London, and try to discover what this fellow, Netherwhat's-it, is really like!'
Slightly taken aback, Lady Wroxton said, in mild expostulation: ‘My dear boy, you cannot, surely, question Hetta about him?'
‘Lord, yes! of course I can!' said the Viscount. ‘There are no secrets between Hetta and me, Mama, any more than there are between Griselda and me in fact,' he added, subjecting this confident assertion to consideration, ‘far fewer!'