No Wind of Blame
By Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 1939 Georgette Rougier
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-4022-2778-3
The Prince is coming by the one-forty-five. That means he'll be here in time for tea. Well, I do call that nice!'
No answer being made to this remark, the lady at the head of the table repeated it, adding: 'I'm sure you'll like him. He's such a gentleman, if you know what I mean.'
Miss Cliffe raised her eyes from her own correspondence. 'Sorry, Aunt Ermyntrude: I wasn't attending. The Prince - oh yes! Then the big car will be wanted to meet the train. I'll see to it.'
'Yes, do, dearie.' Mrs Carter restored the Prince's letter to its envelope, and stretched out a plump arm towards the toast-rack. She was a large woman, who had enjoyed, in youth, the advantages of golden hair and a pink-and-white complexion. Time had committed some ravages with both these adjuncts, but a lavish use of peroxide and the productions of a famous beauty specialist really worked wonders. If the gold of Ermyntrude's carefully waved hair was a trifle metallic, the colour in her cheeks was all and more than it had ever been. Artificial light was kinder to her than the daylight, but she never allowed this tiresome fact to worry her, applying her rouge each morning with a lavish yet skilled hand which recalled the days when she had adorned the front row of the chorus; and touching up her lashes withmascara, or (in her more dashing moments) with a species of vivid blue that was supposed to deepen the perfectly natural blue of her eyes.
The exigencies of this facial toilet apparently exhausted her matutinal energy, for she never put on her corsets until fortified by breakfast, and invariably appeared in the dining-room in a robe of silk and lace which she referred to as her négligé. Mary Cliffe, who had never been able to accustom herself to the sight of Ermyntrude's flowing sleeves trailing negligently across the butter-dishes, and occasionally, if Ermyntrude were more than usually careless, dipping into her coffee, had once suggested, with perfect tact, that she really ought to stay in bed for breakfast. But Ermyntrude was of a cheerful and a sociable disposition, and liked to preside over the breakfast-table, and to discover what were her family's plans for the day.
Mary Cliffe, who addressed her by the title of aunt, was not, in fact, her niece, but the cousin, and ward, of her husband, Wallis Carter. She was a good-looking young woman in the early twenties, with a great deal of common sense, and a tidiness of mind which years of association with Wally Carter had only served to strengthen. She was fond of Wally, in a mild way, but she was not in the least blind to his faults, and had not suffered even a small pang of jealousy when, five years before, he had, rather surprisingly, married Ermyntrude Fanshawe. The possession of a small but securely tied-up income of her own had ensured her education at a respectable boarding-school, but her holidays, owing to Wally's nomadic tendencies and frequent insolvencies, had been spent in a succession of dingy boarding-houses, and enlivened only by the calls of creditors, and the recurrent dread that Wally would succumb to the attractions of one or other of his landladies. When, during a brief period of comparative affluence, he had patronised a large hotel at a fashionable watering-place, and had had the luck to captivate Ermyntrude Fanshawe, who was an extremely rich widow, Mary, with her customary good sense, had regarded his marriage as providential. Ermyntrude was undoubtedly flamboyant, and very often vulgar, but she was good-natured, and extremely generous, and so far from resenting the existence of her husband's young ward, behaved to her with the utmost kindness, and would not hear of her leaving Wally's roof to earn her own living. If Mary wanted to work, she said, she could act as her secretary at Palings, and perhaps help with the housekeeping. 'Besides, dearie, you'll be a real nice companion for my Vicky,' she added.
This had seemed to Mary to be a fair arrangement, although, when she met Vicky Fanshawe, a precocious schoolgirl, five years her junior, she could not feel that they were destined to become soul-mates.
Vicky, however, was being educated, at immense expense, first at a fashionable school on the south coast of England, and later at a still more fashionable finishing-school in Switzerland. During the last two years, she had spent her holidays abroad with Ermyntrude, so that Mary had hardly encountered her. Her education was now considered to be completed, and she was living at home, a source of pride and joy to her mother, but not precisely an ideal companion for Mary, who was alternately amused and exasperated by her.
She reflected, on this warm September morning, that the presence of a Russian prince in the house would be productive of all Vicky's most tiresome antics, and inquired in tones of foreboding whether the Prince were young.
'Well, I wouldn't say young,' replied Ermyntrude, helping herself to marmalade. 'He's at what I call the right age, if you know what I mean. You never saw anyone so distinguished - and then his manners! Well, you don't meet with such polish in England, not that I'm one to run down my own country, but there it is.'
'I don't like Russians much,' said Mary perversely. 'They always seem to talk so much and do so little.'
'You shouldn't be narrow-minded, dear. Besides, he isn't actually a Russian, as I've told you a dozen times. He's a Georgian - he used to have a lovely estate in the Caucasus, which is somewhere near the Black Sea, I believe.' At this moment the door opened, and Wally Carter came into the room. He was a medium-sized man, who had been good-looking in youth, but who had run rather badly to seed. His blue eyes were inclined to be bloodshot, and his mouth, under a drooping moustache, sagged a little. In the days when he had courted Ermyntrude, his fondness for strong liquor had not made him quite careless of appearances, but five years spent in opulent circumstances had caused him to deteriorate lamentably. He was naturally slovenly, and his clothes never seemed to fit him, nor his hair to be properly brushed. He was generally amiable, but grumbled a good deal, not in any bad-tempered spirit, but in a gently complaining way to which none of his family paid the slightest heed.
'Here you are, then!' said his wife, by way of greeting. 'Touch the bell, Mary, there's a love! We couldn't have had a better day, could we, Wally? Though, of course, as I always say, to see Palings at its best you ought to see it when the rhododendrons are out.'
'Who wants to see it?' inquired Wally, casting a lack-lustre glance towards the window.
'Now, Wally! As though you didn't know as well as I do that the Prince is coming today!'
This reminder seemed to set the seal to Wally's dissatisfaction. He lowered the newspaper behind which he had entrenched himself. 'Not that fellow you picked up at Antibes?' he said.
A spark of anger gleamed in Ermyntrude's eye. 'I don't see that you've any call to be vulgar. I should hope I didn't go picking up men at my time of life! Alexis was introduced to me by Lady Fisher, I'll have you know.'
'Alexis!' ejaculated Wally. 'You needn't think I'm going to go about calling the fellow by a silly name like that, because I'm not.'
'You'll call him Prince Varasashvili, and that's all there is to it,' said Ermyntrude tartly.
'Well, I won't. For one thing, I don't like it, and for another, I couldn't remember it - not that I want to, because I don't. And if you take my advice, you'll be careful how you say it. If you start introducing this fellow as Prince Varasash - whatever-it-is, you'll have people saying you've been mixing your drinks.'
'I must say it's a bit of a tongue-twister,' remarked Mary. 'You'll have to write it down for me, Aunt Ermy.'
'It'll be quite all right if you just call him Prince,' said Ermyntrude kindly.
'Well, if that's your idea of quite all right it isn't mine,' said Wally. 'Nice fool you'll look when you say Prince, and find the poor old dog wagging his tail at you.'
This aspect of the situation struck Ermyntrude most forcibly. 'I hadn't thought of that,' she admitted. 'I must say, it does make things a bit awkward. I mean, you know what Prince is! It would be awful if I went and said, "Get off that chair, Prince," as I don't doubt I will do, thanks to the way you spoil that dog, Wally, and Alexis thought I was speaking to him. Oh well, Prince will have to be tied up, that's all.'
'Now, that's one thing I won't put up with,' said Wally. 'It's little enough I ever ask, but have my poor old dog tied up for the sake of a Russian prince I don't know and don't want to know, I won't. If you'd asked me before inviting the fellow, I should have said don't, because I don't like foreigners; but, as usual, no one consulted me.'
Ermyntrude looked concerned. 'Well, I'm sorry you're so set against Alexis, Wally, but honestly he doesn't speak foreign.'
Wally paid not the slightest heed to this, but said: 'A set of wasters, that's what those White Russians are. I'm not surprised they had a revolution. Serves them right! What was this chap of yours doing at Antibes? You needn't tell me! Living on some rich woman, that's what he was doing!' He found that his ward had raised her eyes quickly to his face, and was flushing rather uncomfortably, and added: 'Yes, I know what you're thinking, but I shall be a wealthy man one of these days, so the cases aren't the same. When my Aunt Clara dies, I shall pay Ermyntrude back every penny.'
Mary made no remark. Wally's Aunt Clara, who had been an inmate for the past ten years of a Home for Mentally Deficients, was well known to her by repute, having served Wally as an excuse for his various extravagances ever since she could remember.
Ermyntrude gave a chuckle. 'Yes, we all know about this precious Aunt Clara of yours, dearie. All I can say is, I hope you may get her money, not that there's any question of paying back between us, because there isn't; and if you're trying to cast it up at me that I grudge you anything, you know I don't grudge a penny, except for what you squander on things which we won't mention.'
This sinister reference, accompanied as it was by a rising note in his wife's voice, quelled Wally. He hastily passed his cup to her for more coffee, and greeted, with frank relief, the sudden and tempestuous entrance of his stepdaughter.
This damsel came into the room on a wave of dogs. Two cocker spaniels, Ermyntrude's Pekinese, and an overgrown Borzoi cavorted about her, and since one of the cockers had apparently been in the river, a strong aroma of dog at once pervaded the room.
'The Sports Girl!' remarked Mary, casting an experienced eye over Vicky's costume.
This consisted of a pair of slacks, an Aertex shirt, and sandals which displayed two rows of reddened toe-nails.
'Oh, darling, not the spaniels! Oh, if Prince hasn't been in the water again!' exclaimed Ermyntrude distressfully.
'Poor sweets!' Vicky crooned, ejecting them from the room. 'Lovely, lovely pets, not now! Lie down, Roy! Good Roy, lie down!'
'What's this idea of bringing a pack of dogs in to breakfast?' demanded Wally, repulsing the advances of the Borzoi. 'Lie down, will you? You might as well try to eat in a damned menagerie!' He added, after a glance at Vicky's costume: 'What's more, it puts me off my food to see you in that get-up. I don't know why your mother allows it.'
'Oh, let her alone, Wally!' said Ermyntrude. 'I'm sure she looks as pretty as paint, whatever she wears. Not but what I don't care for trousers myself. Time and again when I've seen some fat creature waddling about in them, I've thought to myself, well, my girl, if you could see your own bottom you'd soon change into a skirt.'
'Darling! I practically haven't got a bottom!' protested Vicky, sliding into her place opposite to Mary.
'Nor you have, ducky. That's one way you don't take after me!'
Vicky smiled abstractedly, and began to read her letters, while her mother sat surveying her with fond admiration.
She was indeed a very pretty girl, with pale corn-coloured hair, which she wore rather long, and curled into a thick bush of ringlets at the base of her neck; and large blue eyes that gazed innocently forth from between darkened lashes. Even the ruthless plucking of her eyebrows, and the pencilling of improbable arches perceptibly higher than the shadows of the original brows, failed to ruin her beauty. Her complexion varied in accordance with her mood, or her costume, but she had no need of powder to whiten a naturally fair skin.
'I suppose you know about this prince coming to stay?' said Wally, in a grumbling tone. 'What your mother wants with him I don't know, though I dare say you're as bad as she is, and think there's something fine about having a prince in the house.'
'Oh, I think it's lovely!' Vicky said.
This artless response disgusted Wally so much that he relapsed into silence.
Ermyntrude had slit open another letter, and suddenly exclaimed 'Ah!' in an exultant tone. A triumphant smile curled her lips. 'There's nothing like a prince!' she said simply. 'The Derings have accepted!'
Even Wally seemed pleased by this announcement, but he said, with a glance in Mary's direction, that he didn't think the Prince had anything to do with it. 'I wouldn't mind betting young Bering's home,' he said.
Mary coloured, but replied calmly: 'I told you he was, yesterday.'
Vicky emerged from the clouds of some apparently beatific dream to inquire: 'Who is he?'
'He's an old friend of Mary's,' said Wally.
'The boy-friend?' asked Vicky, interested.
'No, not the boy-friend,' said Mary. 'His people live at the Manor, and I've known him ever since we came to live here. He's a Chancery barrister. You must remember him, surely!'
'No, but he sounds frightfully dull,' said Vicky.
'Well, he's a very nice young fellow,' said Wally. 'And if he wants to marry Mary I shall make no objection. No objection at all. What's more, I shall leave her all my money.'
'When you get it,' said Ermyntrude, with a chuckle. 'I'm sure I hope he will ask Mary to marry him, because it would be what I call a good match, and what's more, the man that gets you, my dear, will be very lucky, whatever his people may say.'
'Thank you!' said Mary. 'But as he hasn't asked me to marry him, I don't think we need worry about what his people would say, Aunt Ermy.' Conscious of her heightened colour, she made haste to change the subject, looking across the table at Vicky, and saying: 'By the way, what got you out of bed so bright and early this morning? I heard you carolling in the bath at an ungodly hour.'
'Oh, I went out to see if I could get a rabbit!'
Mary's lips twitched. 'I thought this was a Sports-Girl Day! Don't tell me you weren't wearing sandals and painted toe-nails, because it would spoil the whole picture for me!'
'But I was!' said Vicky, opening her eyes very wide.
'You must have looked a treat!'
'Yes, I do think I looked rather nice,' Vicky agreed wholeheartedly.
'Did you shoot anything?'
'Oh yes, very nearly!'
'That's where you take after your father, ducky,' said Ermyntrude. 'I never knew such a man for sport! Three times he went to Africa, big-game shooting. That was before he met me, of course.'
'Well, if you call missing rabbits taking after her father, I don't,' remarked Wally. 'As far as I can make out, her father never missed anything. It's a great pity he didn't, if you ask me, for if he had perhaps I shouldn't have had to live in a house full of bits of wild animals. I dare say there are people who like keeping their umbrellas in elephants' legs, and having gongs framed in hippo tusks, and tables made out of rhinoceros hides, and leopard skins chucked over their sofas, and heads stuck up all round the walls, but I'm not one of them, and I've never pretended that I was. You might as well live in the Natural History Museum, and be done with it.'
'And the Bawtrys are coming too!' said Ermyntrude, who had paid not the least attention to this speech. 'That'll make us ten, all told.'
'I think Alan would like to come to the party,' murmured Vicky.
Excerpted from No Wind of Blame by Georgette Heyer Copyright © 1939 by Georgette Rougier. Excerpted by permission.
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