Do not, I beg of you, my lord, say more!' uttered Miss Milborne, in imploring accents, slightly averting her lovely countenance, and clasping both hands at her bosom.
Her companion, a tall young gentleman who had gone romantically down upon one knee before her chair, appeared put out by this faltered request. ‘Damn it I mean, dash it, Isabella!' he expostulated, correcting himself somewhat impatiently as the lady turned reproachful brown eyes upon him, ‘I haven't started!'
‘But I'm about to offer for you!' said the Viscount, with more than a touch of asperity.
‘I know,' replied the lady. ‘It is useless! Say no more, my lord!'
The Viscount arose from his knee, much chagrined. ‘I must say, Isabella, I think you might let a fellow speak!' he said crossly.
‘I would spare you pain, my lord.'
‘I wish you will stop talking in that damned theatrical way!' said the Viscount. ‘And don't keep on calling me "my lord", as though you hadn't known me all your life!'
Miss Milborne flushed, and stiffened a little. It was perfectly true, since their estates marched together, that she had known the Viscount all her life, but a dazzling career as an acknowledged Beauty, with half the eligible young gentlemen in town at her feet, had accustomed her to a far more reverential mode of address than that favoured by her childhood's playmate. In some dudgeon, she gazed coldly out of the window, while her suitor took a few hasty turns about the room.
The prospect, which was of neat lawns, well-stocked flowerbeds, and trim hedges, was a pleasing one, but it was not from any love of sylvan settings that Miss Milborne was at present sojourning in the country. Her withdrawal from the Metropolis some weeks previously had been in consequence of her having contracted an odiously childish complaint which had made it necessary for her to disappear from the Polite World at a moment when she might have been pardoned for considering herself, if not its hub, at least its cynosure. Her Mama, quite as sensible as herself of the ridiculous nature of her indisposition, had announced her to be quite worn-down by the exigencies of fashionable life, and had whisked her off to Kent in a post-chaise-and-four, where, in a comfortable mansion suitably retired from the haunts of men, she was able not only to recover her health and looks in seclusion, but also to communicate her complaint to two abigails, and a youthful page-boy. She had emerged from her sick room some weeks earlier, but since she was still a trifle pale and out of looks, Mrs Milborne, a lady distinguished by her admirable sense, had decided to keep her in the country until (she said) the roses should again bloom in her cheeks. Quite a number of ardent gentlemen had presented themselves at Milborne House, having driven all the way from London in the hopes of being permitted a glimpse of the Incomparable, but the door remained shut against them, and they were obliged to relinquish their nosegays and passionate billets into the hands of an unresponsive butler, and to tool their various chariots back to town without having had even the refreshment of being allowed to press their lips to the fair hand of the Beauty.
Lord Sheringham would undoubtedly have met with the same reception had he not presumed in a very unhandsome way upon his long acquaintance with the family, by riding over from Sheringham Place, where he had been spending the night, leaving his horse at the stables, and walking up through the gardens to enter the house through one of the long windows that opened on to the lawn. Encountering an astonished footman, his lordship, very much at home, had tossed his whip and his gloves on to a table, laid his curly-brimmed beaver beside them, and demanded the master of the house.
Mr Milborne, being quite unblessed by the worldly wisdom which characterised his spouse, had no sooner grasped the purpose of this visit than he suggested vaguely, and not very hopefully, that his lordship had better speak to Isabella himself. ‘For I'm sure I don't know, Anthony,' he had said, looking doubtfully at the Viscount. ‘There's no saying what may be in their heads, no saying at all!'
Correctly divining this cryptic utterance to refer to his wife and daughter, his lordship had said: ‘At all events, you've no objection, sir, have you?'
‘No,' replied Mr Milborne. ‘That is Well, no, I suppose I don't object. But you had best see Isabella for yourself!'
So the Viscount was ushered into the Beauty's presence before she had time even to draw down the blind against the too-searching light of day, and had plunged without the slightest preamble into the first offer of marriage he had ever made.
Miss Milborne found herself in the unhappy predicament of not knowing her own mind. The Viscount had been one of her acknowledged suitors for the past year, and the fact of her having known him almost from the cradle did not blind her to his charms. He was a handsome young blade, wild enough to intrigue the female fancy, and if not as brilliant a match as the Duke of Severn, who had lately shown flattering symptoms of being on the verge of declaring himself, at least he was much more presentable his grace being a stolid young man inclined to corpulency. On the other hand, the Viscount was by no means so devout a lover as his friend Lord Wrotham, who had several times offered to blow his brains out, if such a violent act would afford her pleasure. In fact, the suspicion had more than once crossed Miss Milborne's mind that the Viscount had joined the throng of her admirers for no better reason than that he was never one to be out of the mode. His professed adoration had not so far led him to abandon the pursuit of opera-dancers and Cyprians, or to rectify those faults of character to which Miss Milborne had more than once taken exception. She was a little piqued by him. If he would but display a few tangible signs of his devotion, such as reforming his way of life, which was shocking; growing slightly haggard, like poor Wrotham; turning pale at a snub; or being cast into rapture by a smile, she thought she would have been much inclined to accept his proffered suit. But instead of behaving in a fashion which she had come to regard as her due, the Viscount continued on his reprehensible course, according her certainly a good deal of homage, but apparently deriving just as much pleasure as ever from a set of sports and pastimes which seemed to have been chosen by him with a view to causing his family the maximum amount of pain and anxiety.
She stole a look at him under her eyelashes. No, he was not as handsome as poor Wrotham, whose dark, stormy beauty troubled her dreams a little. Wrotham was a romantic figure, particularly when his black locks were dishevelled through his clutching them in despair. The Viscount's fair curls were dishevelled too, but there was nothing romantic about this, since the disorder was the result of careful combing, and Miss Milborne had a strong suspicion that his passion for herself was not of such a violent nature as to induce him to interfere with his valet's inspired handiwork. He was taller than Wrotham, rather loose-limbed, and inclined to be careless of his appearance. Not that this criticism could be levelled at him on this occasion, Miss Milborne was obliged to own. He had dressed himself with obvious care. Nothing could have been neater than the cravat he wore, nothing more rigorously starched than the high points of his shirt-collar. The long-tailed coat of blue cloth, made for him by no less a personage than the great Stultz, set without a crease across his shoulders; his breeches were of the fashionable pale yellow; and his top-boots were exquisitely polished. At the moment, as he paced about the room, his countenance was marred by something rather like a scowl, but his features were good, and if he lacked Wrotham's romantic expression it was an undeniable fact that he could, when he liked, smile in a way that lent a good deal of sweetness to his wilful, obstinate mouth. He had deceptively angelic blue eyes, at odd variance with the indefinable air of rakishness that sat upon his person. As Miss Milborne watched him, they chanced to encounter hers. For a moment they stared belligerently, then his lordship's good-humour reasserted itself, and he grinned. ‘Oh, deuce take it, Bella, you know I'm head over ears in love with you!'
‘No, I don't,' said Miss Milborne, with unexpected frankness.
The Viscount's jaw dropped. ‘But my dear girl ! No, really, now, Bella! Most devoted slave! Word of a gentleman, I am! Good God, haven't I been dangling at your shoe-strings ever since I first knew you?'
‘No,' said Miss Milborne.
The Viscount blinked at her.
‘When you first knew me,' said Miss Milborne, not rancorously, but as one stating a plain truth, ‘you said all girls were plaguey nuisances, and you called me Foxy, because you said I had foxy-coloured hair.'
‘I did?' gasped his lordship, appalled at this heresy.
‘Yes, you did, Sherry; and, what is more, you locked me in the gardener's shed, and if it had not been for Cassy Bagshot I should have been left there all day!'
‘No, no!' protested his lordship feebly. ‘Not all day!'
‘Yes, I should, because you know very well you went off to shoot pigeons with one of your father's fowling-pieces, and never gave me another thought!'
‘Lord, if I hadn't forgotten that!' exclaimed Sherry. ‘Blew the hat off old Grimsby's head too! He was as mad as fire! Devilish bad-tempered fellow, Grimsby! Went straight off to tell my father. When I think of the floggings that old man got me Yes, and now you've put me in mind of it, Bella, how the deuce should I be giving you a thought with Father leading me off by the ear, and making me too curst sore to think of anything? Be reasonable, my dear girl, be reasonable!'
‘It doesn't signify in the least,' responded Miss Milborne. ‘But when you say that you have been dangling at my shoe-strings ever since you first saw me, it is the greatest untruth ever I heard!'
‘At all events, I liked you better than any other girl I knew!' said the Viscount desperately.
Miss Milborne regarded him in a reminiscent way which he found singularly unnerving. ‘No, I don't think you did,' she said at last. ‘In fact, if you had a preference, I think it was for Hero Wantage.'
‘Hero?' exclaimed the Viscount. ‘No, dash it all, Bella, I never thought of Hero in all my life. I swear I didn't!'
‘No, I know that,' said Miss Milborne impatiently, ‘but when we were children you did like her more than you liked me, or Cassy, or Eudora, or Sophy, because she used to fetch and carry for you, and pretend she didn't mind when she got hurt by your horrid cricket-balls. She was only a baby, or she would have seen what an odious boy you were. For you were, Sherry, you know you were!'
Roused, the Viscount said, with feeling: ‘I'll swear I wasn't half as odious as the Bagshot girls! Lord, Bella, do you remember the way that little cat, Sophy, used to run and tell tales about the rest of us to her mother?'
‘Not about me,' said Miss Milborne coldly. ‘There was nothing to tell.' She perceived that her reminiscent mood had infected the Viscount, the gleam in his eye warning her that some quite undesirable recollections were stirring in his memory, and made haste to recall him to the present. ‘Not that it signifies, I'm sure. The truth is we should not suit, Sherry. Indeed, I'm deeply sensible of the honour you have done me, but '
‘Never mind that flummery!' interrupted her suitor. ‘I don't see why we shouldn't deal extremely. Here's me, madly in love with you, Bella pining away, give you my word! No, really, my dear girl, I'm not bamming! When he measured me for this coat, Stultz found it out.'
‘I fancy,' said Miss Milborne primly, ‘that it is the life you lead that is to blame for your being thin, my lord. I don't flatter myself it can be put to my account.'
‘Well, if that don't beat all!' exclaimed his lordship indig-nantly. ‘I should like to know who's been telling tales about me!'
‘No one has been telling tales. I do not like to say it, but you must own that there is no secrecy about your conduct. And I must say, Sherry, I think if you really loved me as you say you do, you would take some pains to please me!'
‘Take pains to please you! Take No, by God, that's too much, Bella! When I think of the way I've been dancing attendance on you, wasting my time at Almack's night after night '
‘And leaving early to go to some horrid gaming-hell,' interpolated Miss Milborne.
The Viscount had the grace to blush, but he regarded her with a kindling eye, and said grimly: ‘Pray what do you know of gaming-hells, miss?'
‘I am thankful to say I know nothing at all of them, except that you are for ever in one, which all the world knows. It grieves me excessively.'
‘Oh, does it?' said his lordship, anything but gratified by this evidence of his adored's solicitude.
‘Yes,' said Miss Milborne. An agreeable vision of the Viscount's being reclaimed from a life of vice by his love for a good woman presented itself to her. She raised her lovely eyes to his face, and said: ‘Perhaps I ought not to speak of it, but but you have shown an unsteadiness of character, Sherry, a a want of delicacy of principle which makes it impossible for me to accept your offer. I do not desire to give you pain, but the company you keep, your extravagance, the wildness of your conduct, must preclude any female of sensibility from bestowing her hand upon you.'
‘But, Bella!' protested his horrified lordship. ‘Good God, my dear girl, that will all be a thing of the past! I shall make a famous husband! I swear I shall! I never looked at another female '
‘Never looked at another female? Sherry, how can you? With my own eyes, I saw you at Vauxhall with the most vulgar, hateful '
‘Not in the way of marriage, I mean!' said the Viscount hastily. ‘That was nothing nothing in the world! If you hadn't driven me to distraction '
‘Fiddle!' snapped Miss Milborne.
‘But I tell you I love you madly devotedly! My whole life will be blighted if you won't marry me!'
‘It won't. You will merely go on making stupid bets, and racing, and gaming, and '
‘Well, you're out there,' interrupted Sherry. ‘I shan't be able to, because if I don't get married I shall be all to pieces.'
This blunt admission had the effect of making Miss Milborne stiffen quite alarmingly. ‘Indeed!' she said. ‘Am I to understand, my lord, that you have offered for my hand as a means of extricating yourself from your debts?'
‘No, no, of course I haven't! If that had been my only reason I might have offered for a score of girls any time these past three years!' replied his lordship ingenuously. ‘Fact of the matter is, Bella, I've never been able to bring myself up to scratch before, though the lord knows I've tried! Never saw any female except you I could think of tieing myself up to for life I'll take my oath I haven't! Ask Gil! Ask Ferdy! Ask George! Ask anyone you like! They'll all tell you it's true.'
‘I don't desire to ask them. I dare say you would never have thought of offering for me either if your father had not left his fortune in that stupid way!'
‘No, I dare say I shouldn't,' agreed the Viscount. ‘At least, yes, I should! of course I should! But only consider, my dear girl! The whole fortune left in trust until I'm twenty-five, unless I marry before that date! You must see what a devil of a fix I'm in!'
‘Certainly,' said Miss Milborne freezingly. ‘I cannot conceive why you do not immediately offer for one of the scores of females who would doubtless be glad to marry you!'
‘But I don't want to marry anyone but you!' declared her harassed suitor. ‘Couldn't think of it! Damn it all, Isabella, I keep on telling you I love you!'
‘Well, I do not return your love, my lord!' said Miss Milborne, much mortified. ‘I wonder you will not offer for Cassy instead, for I'm sure Mrs Bagshot has positively thrown her at your head any time these past six months! Or if you are so squeamish as to object to poor Cassy's complexion, which I will own to be sadly freckled, I make no doubt Eudora would think herself honoured if you should throw your handkerchief in her direction! But as for me, my lord, though I'm sure I wish you very well, the thought of marriage with you has never entered my head, and I must tell you once more, and for the last time, that I cannot accept of your obliging offer.'
‘Isabella!' pronounced Lord Sheringham, in boding accents, ‘don't try me too far! If you love Another You know, Bella, if it's Severn you mean to have, I can tell you now you won't get him. You don't know the Duchess! Can't call his soul his own, poor old Severn, and she'll never let him marry you, take my word for it!'
Miss Milborne rose from her chair abruptly. ‘I think you are the most odious, abominable creature in the world!' she said angrily. ‘I never Oh, I wish you will go away!'
‘If you send me away, I shall go straight to the devil!' threatened his lordship.
Miss Milborne tittered. ‘I dare say you will find yourself mightily at home, my lord!'
The Viscount ground his teeth. ‘You will be sorry for your cruelty, ma'am, when it is too late!'
‘Really, my lord, if we are to talk of play-acting !'
‘Who's talking of play-acting?' demanded the Viscount.
‘Never talked of any such thing! You're enough to drive a man out of his senses, Isabella!'
She shrugged and turned away from him. The Viscount, feeling that he had perhaps not shown that lover-like ardour which, he was persuaded, consumed him, took two strides towards her and tried to take her in his arms. He received a box on the ear which made his eyes water, and for an instant was in danger of forgetting that he was no longer a schoolboy confronting a tiresome little girl. Miss Milborne, reading retaliation in his face, strategically retired behind a small table, and said tragically: ‘Go!'
The Viscount regarded her with a measuring eye. ‘By God, if I could get my hands on you, Bella, I'd ' He broke off as his incensed gaze absorbed her undeniable beauty. His face softened. ‘No, I wouldn't,' he said. ‘Wouldn't hurt a hair of your head! Now, Bella, won't you '
‘No!' almost shrieked Miss Milborne. ‘And I wish you will not call me Bella!'
‘Oh, very well, Isabella, then!' said his lordship, willing to make concessions. ‘But won't you '
‘No!' reiterated Miss Milborne. ‘Go away! I hate you!'
‘No, you don't,' said his lordship. ‘At least, you never did, and damme if I can see why you should suddenly change your mind!'
‘Yes, I do! You are a gamester, and a libertine, and a '
‘If you say another word, I will box your ears!' said the Viscount furiously. ‘Libertine be damned! You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Bella!'
Miss Milborne, aware of having been betrayed into unmaidenly behaviour, burst into tears. Before the greatly discomposed Viscount could take appropriate action the door opened and Mrs Milborne came into the room.
Mrs Milborne's eye took in the situation at a glance, and she lost no time in hustling the discomfited young man out of the house. His protestations fell on inattentive ears. She said: ‘Yes, yes, Anthony, but you must go away, indeed you must! Isabella is not well enough to receive guests! I cannot imagine who can have let you into the house! It is most obliging in you to have called, and pray convey my respects to your dear Mama, but at this present we are not receiving visitors!'
She put his hat and his gloves into his hands and inexorably showed him out of the front door. By the time she had returned to the drawing-room, Isabella had dried her eyes and recovered her composure. Her mother looked at her with raised brows. ‘Did he make you an offer, my love?'
‘Yes, he did,' replied Isabella, sniffing into her handkerchief.
‘Well, I see nothing to cry about in that,' said Mrs Milborne briskly. ‘You should bear in mind, my love, that the shedding of tears has the very disagreeable effect of reddening a female's eyes. I suppose that you refused him?'
Her daughter nodded, sniffing rather more convulsively. ‘Yes, of course I did, Mama. And I said I could never marry anyone with so little d-delicacy of principle, or '
‘Quite unnecessary,' said Mrs Milborne. ‘I wonder you should show so little delicacy yourself, Isabella, as to refer to those aspects of a gentleman's life which no well-bred female should know anything about.'
‘Well, but, Mama, I don't see how one is to help knowing about Sherry's excesses, when all the town is talking of them!'
‘Nonsense! In any event, there is not the least need for you to mention such matters. Not that I blame you for refusing Sherry. At least, I own that in some ways it would be an ideal match, for he is extremely wealthy, and we have always been particular friends of But if Severn were to offer for you, of course there could be no comparison between them!'
Miss Milborne flushed. ‘Mama! How can you talk so? I am not so mercenary! It is just that I do not love Sherry, and I am persuaded he does not love me either, for all his protestations!'
‘Well, I dare say it will do him no harm to have had a setdown,' replied Mrs Milborne comfortably. ‘Ten to one, it will bring him to a sense of his position. But if you are thinking of George Wrotham, my love, I hope you will consider carefully before you cast yourself away upon a mere baron, and one whose estates, from all I can discover, are much encumbered. Besides, there is a lack of stability about Wrotham which I cannot like.'
In the face of the marked lack of stability which characterised Viscount Sheringham, this remark seemed unjust to Miss Milborne, and she said so, adding that poor Wrotham had not committed the half of Sherry's follies.
Mrs Milborne did not deny it. She said that there was no need for Isabella to be in a hurry to make her choice, and recommended her to take a turn in the garden with a view to calming her spirits and cooling her reddened cheeks.
The Viscount, meanwhile, was riding back to Sheringham Place in high dudgeon. His self-esteem smarted intolerably; and, since he had been in the habit, during the past twelve-month, of considering himself to be desperately enamoured of the Incomparable Isabella, and was not a young gentleman who was given to soul-searching, it was not long before he was in a fair way to thinking that his life had been blighted past curing. He entered the portals of his ancestral home in anything but a conciliatory mood, therefore, and was not in the least soothed by being informed by the butler that her ladyship, who was in the Blue Saloon, was desirous of seeing him. He felt strongly inclined to tell old Romsey to go to perdition, but as he supposed he would be obliged to visit his mother before returning to London, he refrained from uttering this natural retort, contenting himself with throwing the butler a darkling glance before striding off in the direction of the Blue Saloon.
Here he discovered not only his parent, a valetudinarian of quite amazing stamina, but also his uncle, Horace Paulett.
Since Mr Paulett had taken up his residence at Sheringham Place some years previously, upon the death of the late Lord Sheringham, there was nothing in this circumstance to astonish the Viscount. He had, in fact, expected to find his uncle there, but this did not prevent his ejaculating in a goaded voice: ‘Good God, you here, uncle?'
Mr Paulett, who was a plump gentleman with an invincible smile and very soft white hands, never permitted himself to be annoyed by his nephew's patent dislike and frequent incivility. He merely smiled more broadly than ever, and replied: ‘Yes, my boy, yes! As you see, I am here, at my post beside your dear mother.'
Lady Sheringham, having provided herself with a smelling-bottle to fortify her nerves during an interview with her only child, removed the stopper and inhaled feebly. ‘I am sure I do not know what would become of me if I had not my good brother to support me in my lonely state,' she said, in the faint, complaining tone which so admirably concealed a constitution of iron and a strong determination to have her own way.
Her son, who was quite as obstinate as his parent, and a good deal more forthright, replied with paralysing candour: ‘From what I know of you, ma'am, you would have done excellent well. What's more, I might have stayed at home every now and then. I don't say I would have, because I don't like the place, but I might have.'
So far from evincing any gratification at this handsome admission, Lady Sheringham sought in her reticule for a handkerchief, and applied this wisp of lace and muslin to the corners of her eyes. ‘Oh, Horace!' she said. ‘I knew how it would be! So like his father!'
The Viscount did not fall into the error of reading any complimentary meaning into this remark. He said: ‘Well, dash it, ma'am, there's no harm in that! Come to think of it, who else should I be like?'
‘Whom, my boy, whom!' corrected his uncle gently. ‘We must not forget our grammar!'
‘Never knew any,' retorted the Viscount. ‘And don't keep on calling me your boy! I may have a lot of faults, but at least that's one thing no one can throw in my face!'
‘Anthony, have you no consideration for my poor nerves?' quavered his mother, bringing the vinaigrette into play again.
‘Well, tell that platter-faced old fidget to take himself off!' said the Viscount irritably. ‘Never can see when he's not wanted, and the lord knows I've given him a hint times without number!'
‘Ah, my b But I must not call you that, must I? Then let it be Sherry, for that, I collect, is what your cronies, your boon companions, call you, is it not?'
‘I don't see what that's got to do with it,' responded his nephew. ‘If you hadn't taken it into your head to come and live here, you wouldn't have to call me anything, and that would suit me to a cow's thumb!'
Mr Paulett shook a finger at him. ‘Sherry, Sherry, I fear your suit cannot have prospered! But never mind, dear boy! Persevere, and you will see how she will come about!'
The Viscount's cerulean eyes lit with sudden wrath, and a tide of red coloured his cheeks. ‘Hell and the devil confound it!' he exclaimed furiously. ‘So you're at that, are you? I'll thank you to be a little less busy about my affairs!'
Lady Sheringham abandoned tactics which appeared unlikely to succeed, and contrived to possess herself of one of his lordship's hands. This she held between both of hers, squeezing it eloquently, and saying in a low tone: ‘Dearest Anthony, remember I am your Mother, and do not keep me in suspense! Have you seen dear Isabella?'
‘Yes, I have,' growled the Viscount.
‘Sit down, my love, beside me. Did you did you make her an offer?'
‘Yes, I did! She won't have me.'
‘Alas! The dearest wish of my heart!' sighed Lady Sheringham. ‘If I could but see you married to Isabella, I could go in peace!'
Her son looked at her in a bewildered way. ‘Go where?' he demanded. ‘If it's the Dower House you're thinking of, there's nothing that I know of to stop you going there any day you choose. What's more, you may take my uncle along with you, and I won't say a word against it,' he added generously.
‘Sometimes I think you wilfully misunderstand me!' com-plained Lady Sheringham. ‘You cannot be ignorant of the enfeebled state of my health!'
‘What, you don't mean that you're going to die, do you?' said the Viscount incredulously. ‘No, no, you won't do that! Why, I remember you used to say the same to my father, but nothing came of it. Ten to one, it's having my uncle always hanging about the place that wears you down. Give you my word, it would kill me in a week, and there's never been a thing the matter with my nerves.'
‘Anthony, if you have no consideration for me, at least you might consider your uncle's sensibility!'
‘Well, if he don't like it he can go away,' replied his lordship incorrigibly.
‘No, no, I am too old a hand to be offended by a young man crossed in love!' Mr Paulett assured him. ‘I know too well the feelings of mortification you are labouring under. It is very distressing indeed. A sad disappointment to us all, I may say.'
‘In every way so eligible!' mourned Lady Sheringham. ‘The estate would round off yours so delightfully, Anthony, and dearest Isabella is so precisely the girl out of all others whom I would have chosen for my only son! Her father's sole heir, and although it cannot compare with yours, her fortune will not be contemptible!'
‘Damme, ma'am, I don't want her fortune! All I want is my own fortune!' said his lordship.
‘If she had accepted your hand you would have had it, and I am sure I should have been glad to see it in your hands, though heaven knows you would squander the entire principal before one had time to look about one! Oh, Anthony, if I could but prevail upon you to relinquish a way of life which fills my poor heart with terror for your future!'
His lordship disengaged himself hurriedly. ‘For the lord's sake, ma'am, don't put yourself in a taking over me!' he begged.
‘I knew she would reject you!' said Lady Sheringham. ‘What delicately nurtured female, I ask of you, my son, would consent to marry one whose footsteps are set upon the path of Vice? Must she not shrink from those libertine propensities which '
‘Here, I say, ma'am!' protested the startled Viscount. ‘It's not as bad as that, 'pon my soul it's not!'
His uncle heaved a sigh. ‘You will allow, dear boy, that there is scarcely an extravagant folly you have not committed since you came of age.'
‘No, I won't,' retorted the Viscount. ‘Dash it, a man can't be on the Town without kicking up a lark or so every now and then!'
‘Anthony, can you tell your Mother that there is not a a Creature (for I cannot bring myself to call her a Female!) with whom you are not ashamed to be seen in the most public of places? Hanging upon your arm, and caressing you in a manner which fills me with repugnance?'
‘No, I can't,' replied the Viscount. ‘But I'd give a monkey to know who told you about that little ladybird!'
He rolled a choleric eye towards his uncle as he spoke, but that gentleman's attention was fixed upon the opposite wall, and his thoughts appeared to be far removed from earthly considerations.
‘You will break my heart!' declared Lady Sheringham, applying her handkerchief to her eyes again.
‘No, I shan't, ma'am,' said her son frankly. ‘You didn't break your heart over any of Father's fancies that ever I heard of! Or if you did you can't do it again. Stands to reason! Besides, when I'm married I shall hedge off, never fear!'
‘But you are not going to be married!' Lady Sheringham pointed out. ‘And that is not all! Never in my life have I been so mortified as when I was obliged to apologise to General Ware for your abominable behaviour on the road to Kensington last month! I was ready to sink! Of course you were intoxicated!'
‘I was no such thing!' cried his lordship, stung on the raw. ‘Good God, ma'am, you don't think I could graze the wheel of five coaches if I'd shot the cat, do you?'
His mother let her handkerchief drop from a suddenly nerveless hand. ‘Graze the wheels of five coaches?' she faltered, looking at him as though she feared for his sanity.
‘Five of 'em, all in a row, and never checked!' asserted the Viscount. ‘Sheerest piece of curst ill-fortune that I overturned old Ware's phaeton! Must have misjudged it. Cost me the wager, too. Backed myself to graze the wheels of the first seven vehicles I met past the Hyde Park turnpike without oversetting any of 'em. Can't think how I came to bungle it. Must have been old Ware's driving. He never could keep the line: a mere whipster! No precision of eye at all!'
‘Unhappy boy!' exclaimed his mother in throbbing accents. ‘Are you dead to all sense of shame? Horace, speak to him!'
‘If he does,' said the Viscount, his chin jutting dangerously, ‘he'll go out through that window, uncle or no uncle!'
‘Oh!' moaned his afflicted parent, sinking back on her couch and putting a hand to her brow. ‘What, what, I ask of you, brother, have I done to deserve this?'
‘Hush, my dear Valeria! Calm yourself, I beg!' said Mr Paulett, clasping her other hand.
‘No wonder poor Isabella rejected his suit! I cannot find it in me to blame her!'
‘Alas, one cannot but feel that for the sake of the estate it may be for the best!' said Mr Paulett, strategically retaining his clasp on that frail but protective hand. ‘Loth as I am to say it, I cannot consider poor Sherry fit to assume the control of his fortune. Well for him that it is held in trust for him!'
‘Oh, is it well for me?' interjected poor Sherry wrathfully. ‘Much you know about it! And why my father ever took it into his head to make you a trustee beats me! I don't mind Uncle Prosper at least, I dare say I could handle him, if it weren't for you, for ever putting a spoke in my wheel! And don't stand there bamming me that you're mighty sorry Bella wouldn't have me, because I know you're not! Once I get the confounded Trust wound up, out you'll go, and well you know it! If my mother chooses to let you batten upon her, she may do it, but you won't batten on me any longer, by Jupiter you won't!'
‘Ah!' said Mr Paulett, smiling in a maddening way. ‘But there are two years to run before the Trust comes to an end, my dear boy, and we must hope that by that time you will have seen the error of your ways.'
‘Unless I get married!' the Viscount reminded him, his eyes very bright and sparkling.
‘Certainly! But you are not, after all, going to get married, dear boy,' his uncle pointed out.
‘Oh, aren't I?' retorted his lordship, striding towards the door.
‘Anthony!' shrieked Lady Sheringham. ‘What in heaven's name are you going to do?' she released her brother's hand, and sat up. ‘Where are you going? Answer me, I command you!'
‘I'm going back to London!' answered the Viscount. ‘And I'm going to marry the first woman I see!'