What with the concern over Lady Cardross’s heart and pocket, the much-tried Earl almost misses the opportunity to smooth the path of true love in his marriage.
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Georgette Heyer, who wrote over fifty novels died in 1974.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
There was silence in the book-room, not the silence of intimacy but a silence fraught with tension. My lady's blue eyes, staring across the desk into my lord's cool gray ones, dropped to the pile of bills under his hand. Her fair head was hung, and her nervous hands clasped one another tightly. In spite of a modish (and very expensive) morning-dress of twilled French silk, and the smart crop achieved for her golden curls by the most fashionable coiffeur in London, she looked absurdly youthful, like a schoolgirl caught out in mischief. She was, in fact, not yet nineteen years old, and she had been married for nearly a year to the gentleman standing on the other side of the desk, and so steadily regarding her.
She swallowed rather convulsively. The Earl had spoken quite gently, but her ears were quick to catch the note of implacability in his voice. She stole a scared look up at him, and dropped her eyes again, colouring. He was not frowning, but there was no doubt that he meant to obtain an answer to the quite unanswerable question he had put to his erring bride.
Another silence fell, broken only by the ticking of the large clock on the mantelpiece. My lady gripped her fingers so tightly together that they whitened.
‘I asked you, Nell, why all these tradesmen ' the Earl lifted the bills and let them fall again ‘have found it necessary to apply to me for the settlement of their accounts?'
‘I am very sorry!' faltered the Countess.
‘But that doesn't answer my question,' he said dryly.
‘Well well, I expect it was because I because I forgot to pay them myself!'
Lower sank her golden head; she swallowed again.
‘Under the hatches yet again, Nell?'
She nodded guiltily, her colour deepening.
His expression was inscrutable, and for a moment he said nothing. His gaze seemed to consider her, but what thoughts were running in his head it would have been impossible to have guessed. ‘I appear to make you a very inadequate allowance,' he observed.
The knowledge that the allowance he made her was a very handsome one caused her to cast an imploring glance up at him and to stammer: ‘Oh, no, no!'
‘Then why are you in debt?'
‘I have bought things which perhaps I should not,' she said desperately. ‘This this gown, for instance! Indeed, I am sorry. I won't do so any more!'
‘May I see your paid bills?'
This was said more gently still, but it effectively drove the flush from her cheeks. They became as white as they had before been red. To be sure, she had any number of receipted bills, but none knew better than she that their total, staggering though it might seem to the daughter of an impoverished peer, did not account for half of that handsome allowance which was paid quarterly to her bankers. At any moment now my lord would ask the question she dreaded, and dared not answer truthfully.
It came. ‘Three months ago, Nell,' said the Earl, in a measured tone, ‘I forbade you most straitly to pay any more of your brother's debts. You gave me your word that you would not. Have you done so?'
She shook her head. It was dreadful to lie to him, but what else was to be done when he looked so stern, and had shown himself so unsympathetic to poor Dysart? It was true that Dysart's recurring difficulties were all due to his shocking luck; and it seemed that Cardross couldn't understand how unjust it was to blame Dysart for his inability to abandon gaming and racing. That Fatal Tendency, said Mama, with resignation, ran in the family: Grandpapa had died under a cloud of debt; and Papa, with the hopeful intention of restoring the fortunes of his house, had still more heavily mortgaged his estates. That was why Papa had been so overjoyed when Cardross had offered for her hand. For Cardross was as well-born as he was wealthy, and Papa had previously been obliged to face the horrid necessity of giving his eldest daughter to the highest bidder, even (dreadful thought!) if this should prove to be a rich merchant with social aspirations. He had done so with great fortitude, and he had had his reward: in her very first season indeed, before she had been out a month Cardross had not only seen the Lady Helen Irvine, but had apparently decided that she was the bride for whom he had so long waited. Such a piece of good fortune had never even occurred to Lord Pevensey. It was certainly to be supposed that Cardross, past thirty, and with no nearer relation than a cousin to succeed him, must be contemplating marriage in the not too distant future, but such was his consequence that he might have had the pick of all the damsels faithfully presented by their mamas at the Queen's Drawing-rooms, and thereafter exhibited by them at Almack's Assembly Rooms, and all the ton parties. Moreover, to judge by the style of the lady who was pretty generally known to be his mistress, his taste was for something older and by far more sophisticated than a child fresh from the schoolroom. Never had Papa thought to see his little Nell do so well for the family! In the event, her success, and Cardross's generosity proved to be rather too much for him: hardly had he led his child to the altar than he suffered a stroke. The doctors assured his lady that he had many years of life before him, but the visitation had rendered him so far incapable that he had had to abandon his usual pursuits, and to retire to the seclusion of his ancestral home in Devonshire, where, it was the earnest if unexpressed hope of his wife and son-in-law, he would be obliged to remain.
Nell did not know just what Cardross had done to earn her parents' gratitude. It all came under the vague title of Settlements, and she was not to bother her pretty head over it, but to take care always to conduct herself with dignity and discretion. Mama, declaring herself to be deeply thankful, had made quite plain to her what her duty henceforward would be. It included such things as always showing my lord an amiable countenance, and never embarrassing him by asking ill-bred questions, or appearing to be aware of it if (perhaps) he was found to have formed a Connection outside the walls of that splendid house of his in Grosvenor Square. ‘One thing I am sure of,' had said Mama, fondly patting Nell's hand, ‘and that is that he will treat you with the greatest consideration! His manners, too, are so particularly good that I am persuaded you will never have cause to complain of the sort of neglect, or or indifferent civility, which is the lot of so many females in your situation. I assure you, my love, there is nothing more mortifying than to be married to a man who lets it be seen that his affections are elsewhere engaged.'
Mama should have known, for this had been her fate. What Mama did not know, and no one must ever guess, was that her carefully instructed daughter had tumbled headlong into love with my lord at their very first meeting, when Lady Jersey, one of the Patronesses of Almack's, had brought him across the room to be introduced to her, and she had looked up into his eyes, and had seen them smiling down at her. No, Mama had no suspicion of that. Mama was all sensibility, but she knew that marriage had nothing to do with romance. It had been her dread, she confided, that Nell would be married to a man whom she could not like, but she was quite sure that Nell must like so charming and so handsome a gentleman as Cardross. And, what was more, there could be little doubt that he was disposed to hold his bride in considerable affection. He had actually desired Lady Jersey to present him to her, on that memorable evening; and what he had said later to Papa, when he had made his offer, had quite soothed a mother's anxiety. Nell would meet with nothing but courtesy and consideration at his hands.
It hadn't seemed possible to Nell, lost in love, that Cardross could have proposed to her only because she was pretty, and well-born, and rather more pleasing to him than any of the other young ladies who met his critical eye, but Mama had been right. When Nell had met my lord's half-sister and ward, a vivid brunette, not then out, but hopeful of being presented by her sister-in-law, that impetuous damsel had exclaimed, warmly embracing her: ‘Oh, how pretty you are! Prettier by far than Giles's mistress! How famous if you were to put her nose out of joint!'
It had been a dreadful shock, but Nell had not betrayed herself, which was some small consolation; and she was thankful to have been made aware of the truth before she could render herself ridiculous by showing her heart to the world, or have become a tiresome bore to my lord by hanging on him in the doting way which one short season had taught her was considered by the modish to be not at all the thing. As for putting Lady Orsett's nose out of joint it had not taken her long to discover the identity of my lord's mistress that ambition probably belonged, like her earlier dreams, to the realm of make-believe, and certainly seemed very far from achievement today, when my lord was commanding her to account for her debts.
‘Tell me the truth, Nell!'
His voice, quite kind, but unmistakably imperative, recalled her from her hurrying, jumbled thoughts. But it was impossible to tell him the truth, because even if he forgave her for having disobeyed him he was very unlikely to forgive Dysart, for whom, in his eyes, there could be no excuse at all. And if he refused to rescue Dysart from his difficulties any more, and made it impossible for her to do so either, what would become of Dy, or, for that matter, of poor Papa? Not so long ago he had said, a trifle grimly, that the best turn he could render Dysart would be to buy him a pair of colours, and pack him off to join Lord Wellington's army in the Peninsula; and it was all too probable that this was precisely what he would do if this fresh disaster came to his ears. Nor was there much doubt that Dysart would jump at the offer, because he had always hankered after a military career. Only Papa, with his ...
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