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Not more than five days after she had despatched an urgent missive to her brother, the Most Honourable the Marquis of Alverstoke, requesting him to visit her at his earliest convenience, the widowed Lady Buxted was relieved to learn from her youngest daughter that Uncle Vernon had just driven up to the house, wearing a coat with dozens of capes, and looking as fine as fivepence. ‘In a smart new curricle, too, Mama, and everything prime about him!' declared Miss Kitty, flattening her nose against the window-pane in her effort to squint down into the street. ‘He is the most tremendous swell, isn't he, Mama?'
Lady Buxted responded in repressive accents, desiring her not to use expressions unbefitting a lady of quality, and dismissing her to the schoolroom.
Lady Buxted was not one of her brother's admirers; and the intelligence that he had driven himself to Grosvenor Place in his curricle did nothing to advance him in her good graces. It was a fine spring morning, but a sharp wind was blowing, and no one who knew him could suppose that the Marquis would keep his high-bred horses waiting for more than a few minutes. This did not augur well for the scheme she had in mind not, as she had bitterly observed to her elder sister, that she cherished any but the gloomiest expectations, Alverstoke being, without exception, the most selfish, disobliging creature alive.
To this proposition, Lady Jevington, a commanding matron on the shady side of forty, lent only qualified support. She might (and did) think her only brother selfish and disobliging, but she could perceive no reason why he should be expected to do more for Louisa than for herself. As for Louisa's two sons and three daughters, Lady Jevington found herself unable to blame Alverstoke for taking no interest in any of them. It was really impossible to be interested in such commonplace children. That he was equally uninterested in her own offspring did, however, argue a selfish disposition. Anyone would have supposed that a bachelor who was not only of the first stare but who was also possessed of considerable wealth would have been only too glad to have sponsored such a promising nephew as her beloved Gregory into the select circle which he himself adorned, and to have exerted himself to have brought dear Anna into fashion. That Anna had become eligibly betrothed without the least assistance from him in no way mitigated her ladyship's resentment; and although she admitted the justice of her unfashionable lord's reminder that she disapproved of the frippery set to which Alverstoke belonged, and had frequently expressed the hope that Gregory would never allow himself to be drawn into it, she still could not forgive Alverstoke for having made no attempt to do so. She said that she wouldn't have cared a rush if she had not good reason to suppose that Alverstoke had not only purchased a cornetcy in the Life Guards for his young cousin and heir, but made him a handsome allowance into the bargain. To which Lord Jevington replied that as he was very well able to provide for his son, who, in any event, had no claim whatsoever upon his uncle, he could only give Alverstoke credit for having enough good sense to refrain from making an offer of monetary assistance which would have been deeply resented by the Honourable Gregory Sandridge's parents. This was perfectly true; but still Lady Jevington felt that if Alverstoke had had a grain of proper feeling he would not have singled out for his favour a mere cousin instead of his eldest nephew. She also felt that in a better organised state of society his eldest sister's son, rather than a removed cousin, would have been his heir.
Without wishing to see Gregory so unfairly elevated, Lady Buxted was in general agreement with her sister, both ladies being united in contempt of Mr Endymion Dauntry, whom they stigmatised as a perfect block. But whether their enmity towards this blameless young man arose from their dislike of his widowed mama, or from his handsome countenance and magnificent physique, which cast both Gregory Sandridge and young Lord Buxted into the shade, was a question no one cared to ask.
Whatever might have been the reason, his two elder sisters were convinced that no unworthier heir to Alverstoke's dignities than Endymion could have been found; and neither had spared any pains to introduce to her brother's notice all the prettiest and most eligible damsels who were fired off, year after year, into the ton.
But Alverstoke's besetting sin was a tendency to become rapidly bored. It had vanquished his sisters; for although neither of them could suppose, reviewing the numerous dazzling barques of frailty who had lived under his protection, that he was impervious to feminine charms, neither was so muttonheaded as to indulge optimism very far when he seemed to be developing a tendre for some diamond of birth, beauty, and fortune, thrust under his nose by one or other of his sisters. He was perfectly capable of making the lady the object of his gallantry for a few weeks, and then of veering off at a tangent, forgetting her very existence. When it was borne in upon his sisters that prudent parents looked askance at him, and that he was generally thought to be dangerous, they abandoned their attempts to provide him with a wife, devoting their energies instead to the easier task of deploring his indolence, condemning his selfishness, and scolding him for any of his moral aberrations which came to their ears. Only his youngest sister refrained; but as she had refused several flattering offers for her hand, and had married, to please herself, a mere country gentleman, and rarely visited the Metropolis, she was considered by her two sisters to be a negligible quantity. If they spoke of her, which they seldom did, it was as Poor Eliza; and although they knew that Alverstoke preferred her to themselves it entered neither of their heads to solicit her help in the matter of his marriage. Had it done so they would have dismissed the idea, in the well-founded belief that no one had ever, since he grew to manhood, exercised the smallest influence over him.
It was not to read him a lecture that Lady Buxted had on this occasion commanded him to visit her: indeed, she had resolved to say nothing that could set up his back. But as she awaited his entrance the hope which (despite experience) had entered her breast upon hearing of his arrival was succeeded by the reflection that it was just like him to have allowed five days to elapse before putting himself to the trouble of answering a summons, which, for anything he knew, might have been of the utmost urgency. It was with difficulty that she schooled her countenance to an expression of affectionate welcome; and with still more difficulty that she infused cordiality into her voice when he strolled, unannounced, into the room. That was just like him too: the sort of casual behaviour which her ladyship, a high stickler, much deplored, seeing no reason why he should treat her house as if it were his own.
Smothering her annoyance, she stretched out her hand, saying: ‘Vernon! My dear, what a delightful surprise!'
‘What's surprising about it?' he enquired, lifting his black brows. ‘Didn't you ask me to come?'
The smile remained pinned to Lady Buxted's lips, but she replied with more than a touch of acidity: ‘To be sure I did, but so many days ago that I supposed you had gone out of town!'
‘Oh, no!' he said, returning her smile with one of great sweetness.
Lady Buxted was not deceived, but thought it prudent to ignore what she recognised as deliberate provocation. She patted the sofa, and invited her brother to come and sit down. Instead of doing this he walked forward to the fireplace and bent to warm his hands, saying: ‘I can't stay for long, Louisa: what is it you want of me?'
Having made up her mind to lead up to her request by tactful degrees, she found this blunt question as infuriating as it was disconcerting. She hesitated, and he glanced up, a gleam in his rather hard grey eyes, and said: ‘Well?'
She was not immediately obliged to answer him, for at that moment her butler came in, with such refreshments as he considered suitable to the occasion. While he set the heavy tray down on a side-table, and informed the Marquis in the confidential voice of the privileged retainer that he had ventured to bring up the Mountain as well as the sherry, she had time in which to reassemble her ideas, and also to observe, in some dudgeon, that her brother had chosen to visit her in breeches and topboots: attire as regrettably informal as his entrance. That his boots were highly polished, his neckcloth arranged to a nicety, and his coat, which fitted him like a glove, clearly cut by a master, only served to increase her displeasure. She felt that if his general indifference had extended to his appearance she could have forgiven him for not thinking it necessary to honour her by assuming the correct dress for paying morning visits. But no one who looked as elegant as he invariably did, or whose style was copied by so many gentlemen of fashion, could possibly be indifferent to matters of mode. Indeed, she had once demanded, in a moment of exasperation, if he cared for anything but his clothing. To which he had replied, after subjecting the question to consideration, that although his clothes were naturally of paramount importance, he also cared for his horses.
He had gone across the room to the side-table; and, as the butler withdrew, he turned his head, saying: ‘Sherry, Louisa?'
‘My dear Vernon, you should surely know by now that I never touch sherry!'
‘Should I? But I have such a shockingly bad memory!'
‘Not when you wish to remember anything!'
‘Oh, no, not then!' he agreed. He looked across at her, and at sight of her tightened lips and rising colour, laughed suddenly. ‘What a chucklehead you are, dear sister! I never yet cast my line over a fish that rose more readily to the fly than you do! What is it to be? The Malaga?'
‘I will take half a glass of ratafia, if you will be so good as to pour it out for me,' she answered stiffly.
‘It does considerable violence to my feelings, but I will be so good. What an appalling thing to drink at this hour! Or, indeed, at any hour,' he added reflectively. He brought the glass to her, moving in his leisurely way, but with the grace of the born athlete. ‘Now, what is it this time? Don't beat about the bush! I don't want my horses to take cold.'
‘I wish you will sit down!' she said crossly.
‘Very well, but do, for God's sake, cut line!' he replied, choosing an armchair on the opposite side of the fireplace.
‘It so happens, Alverstoke, that I do desire your assistance,' she said.
‘That, dear Louisa, I apprehended when I read your letter,' he retorted, with horrid affability. ‘Of course, you might have summoned me to stun me with one of your rake-downs, but you couched your missive in such affectionate language that that suspicion was banished almost instantly from my mind, leaving me with the only alternative: that you wanted me to do something for you.'
‘I should be grateful, I collect, that you remembered that I had written to ask you to visit me!' she said, glaring at him.
‘You can't think, Louisa, how strongly tempted I am to accept your gratitude with a becoming smirk!' he told her. ‘But never shall it be said of me that I stole another man's honours! Trevor gave me the office.'
‘Do you mean to tell me that Mr Trevor read my letter?' demanded Lady Buxted indignantly. ‘Your secretary?'
‘I employ him to read my letters,' explained his lordship.
‘Not those written by your nearest and dearest!'
‘Oh, no, not them!' he agreed.
Her bosom swelled. ‘You are the most abom ' She stopped, with a gasp; visibly wrought with herself; and contrived, by a heroic effort, to force the smile back to her lips, and to say, with a tolerable assumption of amusement: ‘Wretch! I shan't allow you to take a rise out of me! I want to talk to you about Jane!'
‘Who the devil is Oh, yes, I know! One of your girls!'
‘My eldest daughter, and, let me remind you, your niece, Alverstoke!'
‘Unjust, Louisa, I needed no reminder!'
‘I am bringing the dear child out this season,' she announced, ignoring the interpolation. ‘I shall present her, of course, at one of the Drawing-rooms if the Queen holds any more, but they say her health is now so indifferent that '
‘You'll have to do something about her freckles if she's the one I think she is,' he interrupted. ‘Have you tried citron-water?'
‘I didn't invite you to come here to discuss Jane's appearance!' she snapped.
‘Well, why did you invite me?'
‘To ask you to hold a ball in her honour at Alverstoke House!' she disclosed, rushing her fence.
‘To do what?'
‘I know very well what you are going to say, but only consider, Vernon! She is your niece, and what place could be more suitable for her come-out ball than Alverstoke House?'
‘This house!' he responded, without hesitation.
‘Oh, don't be so disagreeable! I am persuaded they could not dance above thirty couples in this room, and only think of all the fuss and botheration!'
‘I am thinking of it,' said his lordship.
‘But there can be no comparison! I mean, here, where I should be obliged to remove all the furniture from my drawing-room, besides using the dining-room for supper, and the parlour for the ladies' cloaks and Alverstoke House, where there is such a splendid ballroom! And it is my own old home, too!'
‘It is also my home,' said the Marquis. ‘My memory is occasionally faulty, but I retain the liveliest recollection of what you so rightly term the fuss and botheration that attended the balls given there for Augusta, for yourself, and for Eliza, and my answer, dear sister, is No!'
‘Have you no proper feeling?' she said tragically.
He had drawn an enamel snuff-box from his pocket, and was critically studying the painting on its lid. ‘No, none at all. I wonder if I made a mistake when I purchased this? I liked it at the time, but I begin to find it a trifle insipid.' He sighed, and opened the box, with a practised flick of his thumb. ‘And I most assuredly do not like this mixture,' he said, inhaling an infinitesimal pinch, and dusting his fingers with an expression of distaste. ‘You will say, of course, that I should have known better than to have permitted Mendlesham to thrust his Sort upon me, and you are perfectly right: one should always mix one's own.' He got up. ‘Well, if that's all, I'll take my leave of you.'
‘It is not all!' she uttered, her colour much heightened. ‘I knew how it would be, of course oh, I knew!'
‘I imagine you might, but why the devil you wasted my time '
‘Because I hoped that for once in your life you might show some some sensibility! some apprehension of what is due to your family! even some affection for poor Jane!'
‘Rainbow-chasing, Louisa! My lack of sensibility has distressed you for years; I haven't the least affection for your poor Jane, whom I should be hard put to it to recognise, if I met her unawares; and I've yet to learn that the Buxteds are members of my family.'
‘Am I not a member of your family?' she demanded. ‘Do you forget that I am your sister?'
‘No: I've never been granted the opportunity to forget it. Oh, don't fly off the hooks again you can have no notion how bracket-faced you look when you get into one of your pelters! Console yourself with my assurance that if Buxted had left you purse-pinched I should have felt myself obliged to let you hang on my sleeve.' He looked mockingly down at her. ‘Yes, I know you're about to tell me that you haven't sixpence to scratch with, but the plain truth is that you are very well to do in the world, my dear Louisa, but the most unconscionable pinch-penny of my acquaintance! Now, don't nauseate me by prating of affection! You've no more for me than I have for you.'
Considerably disconcerted by this direct attack, she stammered: ‘How can you say so? When I am sure I have always been most sincerely attached to you!'
‘You deceive yourself, sister: not to me, but to my purse!'
‘Oh, how can you be so unjust? And as for my being well to do in the world, I daresay that you, with your reckless extravagance, would be astonished to learn that I am obliged to exercise the strictest economy! Why, pray, do you imagine that I removed from our beautiful house in Albemarle Street when Buxted died, and came to live in this out-of-the-way place?'
He smiled. ‘Since there was not the least occasion for that removal, I can only suppose that it was from your incurable love of sconcing the reckoning.'
‘If you mean that I was obliged to reduce my expenses '
‘No, merely that you were unable to resist the temptation to do so.'
‘With five children left on my hands ' She broke off, warned by the quizzical look in his eye that it would be unwise to develop this theme.
‘Just so!' he said sympathetically. ‘I think we had better part, don't you?'
‘Sometimes,' said Lady Buxted, with suppressed passion, ‘I think you must be the most odious, unnatural creature that ever drew breath! No doubt if it had been Endymion who had applied to you you would have been all compliance!'
These bitter words appeared powerfully to affect the Marquis, but after a stunned moment he pulled himself together, and recommended his sister, in faint but soothing accents, to retire to bed with a paregoric draught. ‘For you are sadly out of curl, Louisa, believe me! Do let me assure you that if ever Endymion should ask me to give a ball in his honour I shall take steps to have him placed under restraint!'
‘Oh, how detestable you are!' she exclaimed. ‘You know very well I didn't mean that what I meant that '
‘No, no, don't explain it to me!' he interrupted. ‘It is quite unnecessary, I promise you! I perfectly understand you indeed, I've done so for years! You and I rather fancy, Augusta too have persuaded yourself that I have a strong partiality for Endymion '
‘That that moonling!'
‘You are too severe: merely a slow-top!'
‘Yes, we all know that you think him a positive pattern-card of perfection!' she said angrily, kneading her handkerchief between her hands.
He had been idly swinging his quizzing-glass on the end of its long riband, but was moved by this interjection to raise the glass to one eye, the better to survey his sister's enflamed countenance. ‘What a very odd interpretation to put upon my words!' he remarked.
‘Don't tell me!' retorted Lady Buxted, in full career. ‘Whatever your precious Endymion wants he may have for the asking! While your sisters '
‘I hesitate to interrupt you, Louisa,' murmured his lordship untruthfully, ‘but I think that extremely doubtful. I'm not at all benevolent, you know.'
‘And you don't make him an allowance, I collect! Oh, no, indeed!'
‘So that's what's wound you up, is it? What a very hubble-bubble creature you are! At one moment you revile me for behaving scaly to my family, and at the next you come to cuffs with me for honouring my obligations to my heir!'
‘That block!' she ejaculated. ‘If he is to become the head of the family I shan't be able to bear it!'
‘Well, don't put yourself into a taking on that score!' he recommended. ‘Very likely you won't be obliged to bear it, for the chances are that you'll predecease me. I can give you five years, you know.'
Lady Buxted, unable to find words adequate to the occasion, sought refuge in a burst of tears, reproaching her brother, between sobs, for his unkindness. But if she thought to soften his heart by these tactics she was the more mistaken: amongst the many things which bored him feminine tears and recriminations ranked high. Saying, with unconvincing solicitude, that if he had guessed that she was out of sorts he would not have inflicted his presence on her, he took his leave, sped on his way by the fervently expressed hope of his sister that she would at least live to see him come by his deserts.
She stopped crying as soon as the door shut behind the Marquis; and might have recovered some degree of equanimity had not her elder son chosen to come into the room a few minutes later, to ask her, with a sad want of tact, whether his uncle had been visiting her; and, if so, what he had had to say to her proposal. Upon learning from her that Alverstoke had been as disobliging as she had always known he would be, he looked grave, but said that he could not be sorry, for, having thought the matter over carefully, he could not like the scheme.
Lady Buxted's disposition was not a loving one. She was quite as selfish as her brother, and far less honest, for she neither acknowledged, nor, indeed, recognised her shortcomings. She had long since convinced herself that her life was one long sacrifice to her fatherless children; and, by the simple expedients of prefixing the names of her two sons and three daughters by doting epithets, speaking of them (though not invariably to them) in caressing accents, and informing the world at large that she had no thought or ambition that was not centred on her offspring, she contrived to figure, in the eyes of the uncritical majority, as a devoted parent.
Of her children, Carlton, whom she rather too frequently alluded to as her First-Born, was her favourite. He had never caused her to feel a moment's anxiety. From being a stolid little boy, accepting his mama at her own valuation, he had grown into a worthy young man, with a deep sense of his responsibilities, and a serious turn of mind which not only kept him out of the scrapes into which his livelier cousin Gregory fell, but which made it quite impossible for him to understand what Gregory, or any other of his contemporaries, found to amuse them in their larks and revel-routs. His understanding was moderate, and his processes of thought as slow as they were painstaking, but he was not at all conceited, merely priding himself on his commonsense. Nor was he jealous of George, his younger brother, whose intelligence he knew to be superior to his own. He was, in fact, proud of George, thinking him a very needle-witted boy; and although his lucubrations had shown him that such ardent spirits as George's might well lead that promising youth from the path of virtue, he never divulged this apprehension to his mother, or informed her of his intention to keep a watchful eye on George, when George's schooldays came to an end. He neither confided in her, nor argued with her; and not even to his sister Jane had he ever uttered a word of criticism of her.
He was four-and-twenty years of age, but as he had as yet shown no disposition to assert himself it came as an unpleasant surprise to his mother when he said that he knew of no reason why Jane's come-out ball should be held at his uncle's house, and at his expense. He sank rapidly in her affection; and, her temper being already exacerbated, they might soon have been at dagger-drawing if he had not prudently withdrawn from the engagement.
He was grieved to discover presently that Jane partook of her mother's sentiments upon this occasion, asserting that it was detestable of Uncle Vernon to be so disobliging, and so hardfisted as to begrudge the expenditure of a few hundred pounds.
‘I am persuaded, Jane,' said Buxted gravely, ‘that you have too much propriety of taste to wish to be so much beholden to my uncle.'
‘Oh, fiddle-faddle!' she exclaimed angrily. ‘Pray, why shouldn't I be beholden to him? I'm sure it's no more than his duty, after all!'
His upper lip seemed to lengthen, as it always did when he was displeased; he said in a repressive voice: ‘I make every allowance for your disappointment, but I venture to think that you will find a party here, in your own home, very much more enjoyable than a vast rout at Alverstoke House, where more than half the guests, I daresay, would be quite unknown to you.'
His second sister, Maria, who, with her own come-out in view, was quite as indignant as Jane, was unable to contain herself, but barely waited for him to come to the end of his measured speech before demanding why he talked such gammon. ‘More enjoyable to hold a nip-farthing ball here, with no more than fifty persons invited, than to make her first appearance at Alverstoke House? You must be all about in your head!' she told his lordship. ‘It will be the shabbiest affair, for you know what Mama is! But if my uncle were to give a ball, only think how magnificent it would be! Hundreds of guests, and all of the first consequence! Lobsters, and aspic jellies and and Chantillies, and creams '
‘Invited to the ball?' interpolated Carlton, with ponderous humour.
‘And champagne!' struck in Jane, paying no heed to him. ‘And I should have stood at the head of the great staircase, with Mama, and my uncle, in a white satin gown, trimmed with rosebuds, and pink gauze, and a wreath!'
This beautiful vision caused tears to well into her eyes, but failed to arouse enthusiasm in either Maria or in Carlton, Maria objecting that with her freckles and sandy hair she would look like a quiz; and Carlton saying that he wondered at it that his sisters should think so much of worldly trumpery. Neither thought it worth while to reply to this; but when he added that for his part he was glad Alverstoke had refused to give the ball, they were quite as much incensed as had been their mama, and far more vociferous. So he went away, leaving his sisters to deplore his prosiness, quarrel about rosebuds and pink gauze, and agree that while their uncle was detestable it was probably Mama's fault, for setting up his back, which neither damsel doubted for an instant that she had done.