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Authors: Georgette Heyer

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #General

Cousin Kate (10 page)

BOOK: Cousin Kate
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Thrown into a little confusion, Kate said stammeringly: 'Yes. Well, of c-course you would, ma'am! Only it does seem so odd of Sarah…'

Lady Broome gave a soft laugh. 'Does it? You must remember, my dear, that persons of her order find writing a great labour.'

It was true that Sarah did not write with ease. Kate agreed doubtfully. Lady Broome continued in a smooth tone: 'If you have given her an account of yourself she knows that you are well, and - I trust!- happy, and she feels, no doubt, that you are off her hands. So much as she must have to do!' She smiled. 'After all, you haven't been here for very long yet, have you? I shouldn't get into a fidget, if I were you!'

'No, ma'am,' said Kate meekly.

She turned away, and was about to leave the room when Lady Broome said: 'By the way, my dear, I am giving a dinner-party tomorrow, so tell Risby to send suitable flowers up to the house in the morning! For the hall, the Crimson saloon, the staircase, the Long Drawing-room, and the anteroom. I suppose we had better have some for the gallery as well.'

'Yes, ma'am, but I had liefer by far pick them myself! Risby's notions of what is suitable are so - so nipcheese!'

'As you wish,' said her ladyship. 'Don't fag yourself to death, however!'

'I won't!' promised Kate, laughing.

She went off, heartened by the prospect of a party to relieve what had begun, very slightly, to be every evening's boredom. She had been surprised to find her aunt leading almost the life of a recluse at Staplewood, for she had assumed her to be a woman of decided fashion, and knew that she took pleasure in being the great lady of the district. She supposed that Sir Timothy's ill-health accounted for it, but it did seem to her that a few small parties of young persons need not disturb him, and would have done much to reconcile Torquil to his lot. Then it occurred to her that Torquil had no friends, other than the Templecombes, and she wondered whether there was perhaps a dearth of young people in the neighbourhood. She ventured to ask Lady Broome if this were so, and was told that there were very few of Torquil's age. 'He doesn't make friends easily, and I must own that I am glad of it,' said her ladyship frankly. 'He is somewhat above the touch of most of the people who live within our reach. Mere smatterers, my dear, to put it in straight words! Much given to romping parties, too: I daresay you know what I mean. I dislike such affairs, and they would not do for Torquil at all. He is so excitable, and his character is as yet unformed. You must have noticed that he suffers from unequal spirits: either he is in alt, or sunk in dejection! The one state invariably follows hard on the other, and although he is in a way to be very much better, Dr Delabole considers that he should still lead a quiet life.'

It did not seem to, Kate that to be shut off from his contemporaries could be a cure for unequal spirits, and the suspicion crossed her mind that Lady Broome was a possessive parent. But nothing in her behaviour supported this theory. Her manner might be caressing, but she did not hang about her son, and she certainly did not dote upon him, however jealously she might guard his health. Little by little it was being borne in on Kate that, despite her manners and her generosity, Lady Broome was a coldhearted woman, who cared more for position than for any human being. Scolding herself for harbouring so ungenerous a though, Kate cast about in her mind for the real author of Torquil's enforced seclusion.

She found it easily enough in the person of Dr Delabole. From the first moment of meeting him she had taken him in dislike. He spared no pains to make himself agreeable; he had treated her with every degree of attention; towards Sir Timothy he showed an engaging solicitude; towards Lady Broome a playful friendliness which never passed the line; and yet Kate could not like him. She suspected him of feathering his nest at Sir Timothy's expense. It then occurred to her that she might be thought to be feathering her own nest at Sir Timothy's expense, and she was obliged to scold herself for harbouring yet another ungenerous suspicion.

These ruminations led her inevitably to the reflection that Staplewood was a most extraordinary house, in that its three inmates led quite detached lives. Sir Timothy's apartments were in one wing of it; Torquil's in the opposite wing; and Lady Broome might have been said to occupy the central block. Unless Sir Timothy were indisposed, they met at dinner; but only rarely did Lady Broome intrude upon her husband's privacy, and still more rarely upon her son's. Kate knew herself to be ignorant of the customs prevailing in large establishments, but this state of affairs struck her at the outset as being very strange, for although, to all outward appearances, Lady Broome was a devoted wife and mother, it seemed odd to Kate that even when Dr Delabole reported Sir Timothy to be rather out of frame, she showed no disposition to remain at his bedside.

Torquil, incensed by the discovery that Kate was far too busy collecting flowers to ride with him, announced that he would dine in his own room, for the party would be the dullest entertainment imaginable. Since it had not taken Kate more than a few days to realize that he stood very much in awe of his mother, she was not surprised to find that this had been an empty threat. When she came downstairs to the Crimson saloon, sumptuously attired in white kerseymere, embellished with Spanish sleeves, and pearl buttons, she found him already in the saloon, very correctly dressed, and looking as sulky as he was beautiful. But at sight of her the cloud lifted from his brow, and he exclaimed: 'Oh, by Jupiter, that's something like! Coz, you look slap up to the echo!'

She blushed, and laughed. 'Thank you! So, I must say, do you!'

He made an impatient gesture, but Dr Delabole said: 'Exactly so! It is what I have been telling him, Miss Kate: he is all in print!' He laid an affectionate hand on Torquil's shoulder, and added humorously: 'And now you see, don't you, dear boy, why you should have been expected to dress yourself up to the nines!'

Torquil shook off his hand. 'Oh, be damned to you, Matthew! What a bagpipe you are! I wish you will bite your tongue! I warn you, Kate, this will be one of Mama's most insipid parties! In fact, you've rigged yourself out in style to no purpose!'

She soon saw that he had judged the party to a nicety. The guests were all elderly, and arrived in pairs, being received by Lady Broome, splendid in crimson velvet and rubies; and by Sir Timothy, looking like a wraith beside her. Lady Broome made it her business to present Kate to everyone, until, as she whispered to Torquil, when he took his place beside her at the dinner-table, her knees ached with curtsying. The Templecombes were not present, but a moment's reflection sufficed to remind Kate that they must, if they left Leicestershire at the end of April, be established in London. She could not help wondering if Lady Broome had known this when she sent out her cards of, invitation.

Dinner was very long, and very elaborate; and since Kate had a deaf man beside her, who devoted his attention to his plate, and she would not encourage Torquil to neglect his other neighbour, an amiable and garrulous dowager, she had nothing to do but to admire her own arrangement of flowers in the centre of the table, while disposing of her portions of soup, fish, and sucking-pig. When the second course made its appearance, with its plethora of vegetables, jellies, fondues, blancmanges, and Chantilly baskets, she refused to allow her aunt to serve her from the larded guinea-fowls which graced the head of the table, or Sir Timothy to tempt her to a morsel of the ducklings set before him, and ended her repast with some asparagus. Beside her, Torquil accepted whatever was set before him, ignored some dishes, toyed with others, drank a great deal of wine, and endured the determined chattiness of his neighbour. Kate could only be thankful that he did endure it. He slipped away, however, when Sir Timothy brought the gentlemen up to the Long Drawing-room to join the ladies: a circumstance which, to judge by her expression, was far from pleasing to his mother. She shot a look at Dr Delabole, which caused him to cast a quick glance round the room, and another, of apology, at her, before he unobtrusively withdrew.

Except for those who played whist in the anteroom, where two tables had been set up, the evening, Kate thought, must have been extremely boring. Fortunately, it was not of long duration. The moon was not yet at the full, so that most of the guests, anxious to reach their homes in the last of the daylight, had bespoken their carriages at an early hour. By ten o'clock, even the inveterate lingerers had departed, and Lady Broome, yawning behind her fan, was saying: 'What an intolerable bore country dinner-parties are! No one has anything to say that might not as well be left unsaid, and one is reduced to flowery commonplaces. My dear Sir Timothy, I was sorry to be obliged to saddle you with Lady Dunston at dinner, and can only trust that you were not worn down by her prattle!'

'Oh, no!' he replied. 'She is always very amiable, and full of anecdote.'

'A gabble-monger!'

'Why, yes, my dear, but gabble-mongers have this to be said in the favour: they provide their own entertainment! I find that few things exhaust me more than making conversation. I had an enjoyable rubber of whist, and passed a very agreeable evening. However, I am a little tired, so I'll bid you both goodnight.'

He smiled vaguely at both ladies, and went away, leaving Lady Broome to thank God the party had broken up so early. 'You see how it is, Kate!' she said. 'The least thing exhausts him! That is why I so seldom entertain - and then only the people he knows, and who understand how easily he can be knocked-up. Very naughty of Torquil to have escaped, but I find it hard to blame him: I fancy one of his headaches may be coming on. Don't be surprised if he keeps to his bed tomorrow!'

Kate privately considered that it was boredom, not headache, which had made Torquil leave the party, but this she naturally did not say. Nor, when her aunt recommended her to retire to her own bed, did she say that she was not tired. But the truth was that she was remarkably wide-awake, and found the prospect of reading or sewing in her bedchamber unattractive. She was young, healthy, and full of energy; and she was, furthermore, wholly unused to a life of indolence. She had welcomed it, but after only a fortnight she had begun to feel enervated, and could almost have wished herself back in the Astley household, where there was at least plenty to do.

After sewing on two buttons, and exquisitely darning a tear in a lace flounce, she was obliged to fold up her work, for her candle, burning low in the socket, had begun to flicker. Sleep was as far away as ever, and with an impatient sigh she went to the window, and pulled back the blinds, looking wistfully out. The moon was not quite at the full, and its light was rendered the more uncertain by a cloudy sky, but Kate knew an impulse to slip out of the house into the scented gardens. She knew very well how improper this would be, and was just about to draw the blinds again when she caught a glimpse of a figure emerging from the deep shadow of a yew hedge. It was only for a moment that she saw it, but for long enough for her to perceive that it was a man's figure; Then, as though he became suddenly aware that he was being watched, he vanished behind the hedge.

Kate was startled, but not alarmed. She had removed her dress before she settled down to her stitchery, and she now snatched up her dressing-gown, and hastily put it on before running along the gallery to her aunt's room. There was no response to her first tap on the door, so she repeated it, rather more loudly. Then, as still there was no reply, she ventured to open the door, and to speak her aunt's name. Even as she did so she saw, by the light of the lamp burning on the table, that the great bed was unoccupied, its curtains undrawn, and its clothing undisturbed. Since Lady Broome had declared herself to be dropping with sleep, and had certainly gone to her room after bidding Kate goodnight, this was surprising. Kate was wondering what to do next when she saw a light approaching up the secondary stairway which lay at the end of the gallery. That did alarm her for an instant, but even as she caught her breath on a gasp Lady Broome came into sight, carrying a lamp. She had put off her rubies, but she was fully dressed, and was looking exhausted. When she saw Kate, she said sharply: 'What is it? What are you doing here?'

'I came in search of you, ma'am. There is a man in the garden: I saw him from my window!'

'Nonsense!
What
man?'

'I don't know that: I had only a glimpse of him before he hid behind the yew hedge. I came to tell you! Should we rouse Pennymore, or, perhaps, Dr Delabole?'

'My dear child, I think you have been dreaming!'

'No, I haven't! I haven't been to bed!' said Kate indignantly.

Lady Broome shrugged. 'Well, if you did indeed see someone it was probably one of the servants.'

'At this hour?'

'It is not so late, you know! It wants twenty minutes to midnight. Do, child, go back to your room, and to bed!'

'But—'

'Oh, for heaven's sake, don't argue!' interrupted Lady Broome, with a flash of temper most unusual in her. She stopped herself, pressing a hand to her brow, and said in a more moderate tone: 'Forgive me! I have the headache.'

The door at the end of the gallery which led into the West Wing opened, and Torquil came into the gallery. When he reached the light thrown by his mother's lamp, Kate saw that he was considerably dishevelled, but in high good humour. He was chuckling a little, and his eyes were sparkling. He said: 'I have had a fine game! Hide-and-seek, you know! I led them
such
a dance!'

'Where have you been, Torquil?' asked his mother. She spoke with customary calm, and compellingly.

BOOK: Cousin Kate
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