Authors: Georgette Heyer
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #Short Stories (Single Author)
‘Did you?’ said Mr Wrexham. ‘I can only offer my apologies for having been absent from home. What do you want with me?’
Letty stared at him. ‘Giles, are you quite well?’ she gasped.
‘I was thinking of something else,’ he apologized, a tinge of colour mounting to his cheek. ‘Did you say you had been awaiting me for two hours? Were you not at the masquerade, then?’
Mr Ledbury, mastering his paroxysm, said: ‘Sir, it is on that head that I was resolved to have speech with you this very night! When I learned that you had taken the scheme in such aversion, nothing, believe me, would have prevailed with me to continue with it! In this determination my sister was steadfast in upholding me. It was only in response to my earnest representations that she was induced, at the outset, to take part in the scheme.’
‘These masquerades are not at all the thing, you know,’ said Mr Wrexham.
Mr Ledbury blushed more vividly still. ‘Sir, from the circumstance of my having been employed since the age of fifteen, first in the Peninsula, and later in America, returning thence only just in time to take part in the late conflict at Waterloo, I have never been on the town, as the saying is. Had I suspected that any impropriety would attach to my escorting Miss Wrexham to such a function, I must have been resolute in refusing to lend myself to the project.’
‘Letty’s notion, was it?’ said Mr Wrexham, with what none of his listeners could feel to be more than tepid interest.
His mother and sister gazed at him in uneasy astonishment. Mr Ledbury, emboldened by his mild aspect, plunged into a recital of his ambitions, his present circumstances, and his future expectations. Mr Wrexham, lost in dreams of his own, caught such phrases as ‘eldest son’, – ‘my father’s estate in Somerset’, and soon interrupted the flow, saying: ‘I wish you will not talk so much! It is time you had your company: you had a great deal better exchange into another regiment, but I cannot discuss that with you at this hour!’
Mr Ledbury, transported to find his Letty’s brother so much less formidable than he had been led to expect, delivered himself of a rehearsed peroration. In the maximum number of words he conveyed to Mr Wrexham the intelligence that, if it were possible, he would prefer Letty to renounce all claim to her inheritance. This noble speech at last jerked Mr Wrexham out of his abstraction, and caused him to retort with considerable acerbity: ‘Happily, it is not possible! I wish you will go away, for I am in no mood for these heroics! Come and talk to me tomorrow morning! You wish to marry my sister: very well, but you must transfer! She will make you the devil of a wife, but that, I thank God, is no concern of mine!’
With these words of encouragement, he inexorably ushered his guest off the premises, barely allowing him time to take a punctilious leave of Lady Albinia, and a fond one of Letty. When he returned to the drawing-room, he found his mother and sister with their heads together, but whatever they were so earnestly discussing remained undisclosed. ‘Giles,’ said Letty anxiously, ‘did you perfectly understand? Edwin has offered for me!’
‘I dare say an estimable young man, but he uses too many words,’ commented Mr Wrexham. ‘Do you think he would like to transfer into a cavalry regiment?’
Alarmed, she laid her hand on his arm. ‘Giles, are you sure you are well?’
‘Perfectly!’ he said, lifting her hand, and gripping it. ‘I was never better!’
She cried sharply: ‘Giles! You have
‘I have found her! The sweetest face I ever beheld, Letty! Mama, I hope you do not mean to succumb to the vapours, for I wish you to make a call of ceremony in Harley Street tomorrow!’
‘His attentions,’ said the widow, fixing a pair of large, rather anxious brown eyes on her cousin’s face, ‘are becoming most marked, I assure you, Honoria!’
‘Fiddle!’ said Lady Pednor.
The widow, who had just raised a delicate cup to her lips, started, and spilled some of the morning chocolate into the saucer. A drop fell on her dress. She set the cup and saucer down, and began to rub the mark with her handkerchief, saying despairingly: ‘There! Only see what you have made me do! I dare say it will never come out!’
‘Very likely it will not,’ agreed her hostess, in no way repentant. ‘You will be obliged to buy a new dress, and that, let me tell you, Clarissa, will be an excellent thing!’
‘I cannot afford a new dress!’ said the widow indignantly. ‘All very well for you, as rich as you are, to talk in that unfeeling way, but you know –’
‘I am not rich,’ said Lady Pednor composedly, ‘but I can afford a new dress, because I do not squander every penny I possess upon my daughter.’
Mrs Wingham blushed, but replied with spirit: ‘You have no daughter!’
‘What is more,’ continued her ladyship, unheeding, ‘I will accompany you to buy the dress, or I dare say you will choose just such another dowdy colour!’
‘Purple-bloom, and very suitable!’ said Mrs Wingham defiantly.
‘Extremely so – for dowagers!’
‘I am a dowager.’
‘You are a goose,’ replied her cousin calmly. ‘It would be interesting to know what you spent on that spangled gauze gown Fanny wore at Almack’s last night!’ She paused, but Mrs Wingham only looked guilty. ‘Pray, what is to be the end of all this extravagance, Clarissa? You will be ruined!’
‘No, no! I have saved every penny I could spare ever since Fanny was a baby, just for this one season! If only I can see her creditably established, it will have been worth it! And although you may say “fiddle!” if you choose to be so uncivil, it is true about Harleston! From the moment of your bringing him up to me at Almack’s that night, I could see that he was instantly struck by my darling’s beauty. And never can I be sufficiently obliged to you, Honoria!’
‘If I had thought that you would be so foolish, my dear, I never would have presented him,’ said Lady Pednor. ‘Harleston and Fanny! Good God, he must be forty if he is a day! How old is she? Seventeen? You are out of your senses!’
The widow shook her head. ‘I don’t wish her to be poor, and –’ She broke off, and looked away from her cousin. ‘Or to marry a very young man. It doesn’t endure, the sort of attachment one forms when one is young, and young men don’t make comfortable husbands, Honoria. With such a man as Lord Harleston – in every way so exactly what one would desire for one’s child! – she would be very happy and never know care, and – and the disagreeable effects of poverty!’
‘My love,’ said Lady Pednor, ‘because your mama made a bad bargain for you when she married you to Tom Wingham, is not to say that every young man must prove to be a monster of selfishness!’
‘I was in love with Tom: it was not all Mama’s doing!’
‘I dare say. An excessively handsome creature, and he could be perfectly amiable, if events fell out according to his wishes.’
‘I have sometimes thought,’ said Mrs Wingham wistfully, ‘that if only his Uncle Horsham had not married again and had a son, after all those years, and poor Tom had succeeded to the title, as he always expected to do, he would have been quite different!’
‘Well, he would have had more money to fling away,’ said Lady Pednor dryly. ‘That might, of course, have made him more amiable.’
‘But that is exactly what I have been saying,’ said the widow eagerly. ‘It was the poverty that made him often so cross and so disobliging! Heaven knows I do not wish to say unkind things of Tom, but can you wonder at me for – yes, for
, like the most odious match-maker alive, to provide my Fanny with everything that will make her life all that mine was not?’
‘I wish you will stop talking as though you were in your dotage!’ said her ladyship irascibly. ‘Let me remind you that you are not yet thirty-seven years old! If you would not drape yourself in purple you might well pass for Fanny’s sister! As for these precious schemes of yours, Fanny should rather be falling in love with an ineligible young man. In fact, I thought that that was what she had done. Didn’t you tell me of some boy in the –th Foot?’
‘No, no!’ cried the widow. ‘At least, I did, but it was only a childish fancy. He has no expectations, and I am persuaded that it was nothing more than the circumstance of his being a neighbour of ours in Buckinghamshire. Why, he cannot afford even to buy his promotion! And since I have brought Fanny to town, and she has met so many gentlemen of
greater address than Richard Kenton, I am persuaded she has forgotten all about him. Fanny marry into a Line regiment, pinching and scraping, living in garrison towns, and – No, a thousand times, no!’
‘I dare say she would enjoy it very much,’ said Lady Pednor.
‘I won’t have it!’ declared the widow. ‘Call me worldly, if you will, but only consider! What comparison can there be between Richard Kenton and the Marquis of Harleston? Mind, if Harleston were not the man he is, I would not for one moment countenance his suit. But have you ever, Honoria – tell me candidly – have you ever, I say, met any gentleman more likely to make a female happy? Setting aside his position and his wealth, where will you find such delightful manners, such engaging solicitude, and, oh, such smiling eyes? What could Fanny find in Richard to rival these attributes?’
‘His youth,’ replied Lady Pednor, with a wry smile. ‘Indeed, I hope she may find a dozen things, for I tell you, Clarissa, if she is setting her cap at Harleston –’
‘Never! I have not uttered a word to her on this subject, and to suppose that she could do anything so vulgar –’
‘So much the better! Not, however, that she would be the first to do so, my love. No man has been more pursued than Harleston; no man has more frequently confounded expectation. They say that he suffered a severe disappointment in youth: be that as it may, it is certain that he has now no thought of marriage. If you had not buried yourself in the country these fifteen years, Clara, you would know that not even such a hardened match-maker as Augusta Daventry would waste one moment’s speculation on Harleston.’
The widow began to pull on her gloves. ‘Very likely she might not. She has a bevy of daughters, but I fancy there is not one amongst them who would not be cast into the shade by my Fanny.’
‘That, I own, is true,’ said Lady Pednor fairly. ‘Fanny casts them all into the shade.’
Mrs Wingham turned quite pink. Her brown eyes sparkled through a sudden mist of tears. She said, in her pretty, imploring way: ‘Oh, Honoria, she
beautiful, is she not?’
‘She is beautiful; her manners are engaging – and to suppose that you will catch Harleston for her is the greatest piece of nonsense ever I heard,’ said her ladyship.
Since Lady Pednor’s mansion was in Berkeley Square, and the furnished house, hired by Mrs Wingham for the season at shocking cost, in Albemarle Street, the widow had not far to go to reach her own door when she parted from her cousin. Disregarding the solicitations of several chairmen, she stepped out briskly, one hand holding up her demi-train, the other plunged into a feather muff. Her face, framed by the brim of a bonnet with a high crown and three curled ostrich plumes, still wore its faintly anxious expression, for her cousin’s words had a little ruffled her spirits. Lady Pednor spoke with all the authority of one who moved habitually in the circle Mrs Wingham had reentered only at the start of the season; and although her kind offices, as much as the Wingham connection (headed by the youthful Lord Horsham, whose birth had put an end to Tom Wingham’s expectations), had thrust an almost forgotten widow and her lovely daughter into the heart of the
, there could be no doubt that she was in a better position to pronounce on the Marquis of Harleston’s probable intentions than one who had met him for the first time barely two months previously.
This reflection deepened the frown between Mrs Wingham’s brows. She had for some time been conscious of a depression on her spirits, which might, she thought, be due to fatigue, or to the prospect of losing the companionship of her child. Her morning visit had done nothing to lift the cloud. Not content with trying to damp her hopes of a brilliant marriage for Fanny, Lady Pednor had, most unnecessarily, recalled Richard Kenton to her mind.
Not that the thought of Richard disturbed her very much. There had certainly been some boy-and-girl nonsense between him and Fanny, but both had behaved very well. Indeed, Richard seemed to realize that he could not support a wife on a lieutenant’s pay; and he had manfully agreed with Mrs Wingham that it would be wrong to permit Fanny to enter upon an engagement until she had seen rather more of the world. Nor had Fanny raised more than a faint demur at her mama’s plans for a London season. She had always been a biddable daughter, and if she had a will of her own it did not find expression in tantrums or odd humours. Launched into society, she behaved just as she ought, neither losing her head at so much unaccustomed gaiety, nor grieving her mama by appearing not to enjoy herself. She had many admirers, but not quite as many suitors, her want of fortune making her an ineligible choice for those who looked for more than birth and beauty in a bride. Mrs Wingham had foreseen that this would be so. She had been hopeful of achieving a good match for her; not until Lord Harleston had shown how strongly he was attracted towards Albemarle Street had she dreamed of a brilliant one. But his lordship, upon first setting eyes on Fanny, had requested Lady Pednor to present him to Fanny’s mama, and, during that evening, at Almack’s Assembly Rooms, when he had civilly devoted himself to Mrs Wingham, conversing with her while Fanny went down a country dance with young Mr Bute, she had known that he was the very man who could be depended on to make Fanny happy. When Fanny had joined them, he had solicited her to dance; later, he had called in Albemarle Street, and had begged Mrs Wingham to bring her daughter to a party of his contriving at Vauxhall Gardens. Since that day they had seemed always to be in his company; and if Mrs Wingham had at first doubted the serious nature of his intentions, such doubts were banished by a morning visit from his sister, a gentle lady who certainly called at her brother’s desire, and who not only treated the widow with distinguishing kindness, but complimented her on Fanny’s beauty, saying, with a smile: ‘My brother has told me, ma’am, that you have a very lovely daughter.’
Lady Pednor had not known
when she tried to depress her cousin’s hopes, reflected Mrs Wingham, mounting the steps to her own front door.
Fanny was going on a picnic expedition to Richmond Park, but her hostess’s carriage had not yet arrived in Albemarle Street. Mrs Wingham found her trying to decide whether to wear a green spencer over her muslin dress, or a shawl of Norwich silk. Mrs Wingham thought that the spencer would be the more suitable wear, and enquired who was to be of the party. Fanny, tying a straw bonnet over her dark curls, replied: ‘I don’t know, Mama, but there are to be two carriages, besides Mr Whitby’s curricle, and Eliza said that most of the other gentlemen would ride, so that it must be quite a large party. I think it was very obliging of Mrs Stratton to have invited me, don’t you?’
Mrs Wingham agreed to it, but added: ‘I hope you will be home in good time, dearest, for I should like you to rest before our own party. And I think you should wear the figured lace. I will lend you my pearls.’
think you will wear the pearls yourself, and on no account that horrid turban, which makes you look like some dreadful dowager, and not in the least like my own, pretty Mama!’ retorted Fanny, bestowing a butterfly’s kiss on the widow’s cheek. She then turned away and began to hunt for a pair of gloves. ‘We sent out a great many cards, didn’t we?’ she said. ‘I quite forget how many guests are coming!’
‘About fifty,’ said Mrs Wingham, with a touch of pride.
‘Gracious, it will be a regular squeeze! I suppose all our particular friends? The Shanklins, and the Yeovils, and Lord Harleston?’
This was airily said. Mrs Wingham, unable to see her daughter’s face, replied calmly: ‘Oh yes!’
‘Of course!’ Fanny said, considering the rival claims of one pair of silk mittens and one pair of French kid gloves. ‘Mama?’
‘Mama, do you – do you like Lord Harleston?’ Fanny asked shyly.
Whatever ambitious schemes Mrs Wingham had in mind, she would have relinquished them all rather than have encouraged her unspoiled daughter to share them. She replied, therefore, in a cool tone: ‘Why, yes, very much! Do you?’
A glowing face was turned towards her. ‘Oh, Mama,
I do! I think him quite the nicest person we have met in London. One could tell him almost anything, and be sure that he would understand just how it was,’ Fanny said impulsively. She bestowed a brief hug upon the widow. ‘Dearest Mama, I am so
you like him!’
Mrs Wingham, returning the embrace, felt tears – thankful tears – sting her eyelids, but was spared the necessity of answering by a scratch on the door, which heralded the entrance of the page-boy, come to inform Miss Wingham that Mrs Stratton’s barouche awaited her.
Fanny did not return from her picnic in time to indulge in rest, but she was in her best looks that evening. Several persons commented on her radiance; and Lord Harleston, obliging his hostess to recruit her energies with a glass of champagne, said, with his attractive smile: ‘You are to be congratulated, ma’am! I do not know when I have seen so engaging a creature as your daughter. Such a bloom of health! Such frank, open manners! I think, too, that she has a disposition that matches her face.’
‘Indeed, my lord, she is the dearest girl!’ Mrs Wingham said, blushing with gratification and raising her eyes to his. ‘I do think – but I might be partial – that she is very pretty. She favours her papa, you know.’