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Authors: Georgette Heyer

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

Cousin Kate (2 page)

BOOK: Cousin Kate
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'Believe that
Sarah knows best
!' supplied Kate, submitting.

'Which you can be bound I do!' said Mrs Nidd.

Miss Malvern was neither so young nor so guileless as her flower-like countenance frequently led strangers to suppose. She was four-and-twenty years old, and her life had not been passed in a sheltered schoolroom. The sole offspring of a clandestine marriage between the charming but sadly unsatisfactory scion of a distinguished family and a romantic girl of great beauty but somewhat inferior lineage, she was born in a garrison town, and reared in a succession of lodgings and billets. The runaway bride whom Captain Malvern had captivated disappointed her scandalized relations by suffering no regret whatsoever at being repudiated by them; and falsified their expectations by remaining so ridiculously besotted that neither the discomforts of following the drum, nor the aberrations of her volatile spouse abated her love, or daunted her spirits. She brought Kate up in the belief that Papa was the personification of every virtue (the embarrassing situations in which from time to time he found himself arising not from any obliquity but from an excess of amiability), and that it was the duty of his wife and daughter to cherish him. She died, in Portugal, when Kate was twelve years old, almost with her last breath adjuring Kate to take good care of Papa, and, to the best of her ability, Kate had done so, aided and abetted by her redoubtable nurse. Sarah cherished no illusions, but, like nearly all who were acquainted with him, she was a victim of his compelling charm. 'Poor dear gentleman!' Sarah had said, after his funeral. 'He had his faults, like the best of us - not that I'm saying he was the best, because telling farra-diddles is what I don't hold with, and there's few knows better than me that you couldn't depend on him, not for a moment, while as for the way he wasted his money it used to put me into such a tweak that there were times when I didn't know how to keep my tongue between my teeth! He never took thought to the morrow, and nor did my poor dear mistress neither. You never knew where you was, for there wouldn't be enough money to buy one scraggy chicken in the market one day, and the next he'd come in singing out that the dibs was in tune, and not a thought in his head or my mistress' but how to spend it quickest. Well, he told me once that it was no use ringing a peal over him for going to low gaminghouses, because he was born with a spring in his elbow, and there was no sport in playing cards and such in the regiment, for nearly all the officers was living on their pay, same as he was himself. But this I will say for him! there was never a sweeter-tempered nor a kinder-hearted man alive!'

'Ay,' had agreed Mr Nidd, rather doubtfully. 'Though it don't seem to me as he behaved very kind to Miss Kate, leaving her like he done with a lot of debts to pay, and nobbut his prize-money to do it with-what was left of it, which, by what you told me, wasn't so very much neither.'

'He always thought he'd win a fortune! And how was he to know he was going to meet his end like he has? Oh, Joe, I wish he'd been killed at Waterloo, for this is worse than anything! When I think of him that was always so gay, and up to the knocker, no matter whether he was plump in the pocket or regularly in the basket, being knocked down by a common tax-cart, well, it makes me thankful my poor mistress ain't alive to see it, which is a thing I never thought to be! And my lamb left alone, without a sixpence to scratch with, and she so devoted to her pa! I never ought to have married you, Joe, and it weighs on me that I let you wheedle me into it, for if ever Miss Kate needed me she needs me now!'

'I need you too, Sarey,' had said Mr Nidd, with difficulty.

Observing the look of anxiety on his face, Sarah had mopped her eyes, and implanted a smacking kiss on his cheek, saying: 'And a good, kind husband you are, Joe, and if there was more as faithful as what you proved yourself to be the world would be a better place!'

Colouring darkly, Mr Nidd had uttered an inarticulate protest, but this rare tribute from his sharp-tongued spouse had been well earned. Falling deeply in love with a much younger Sarah, who had been on the eve of accompanying her mistress and her nursling to Portugal, and had rejected his offer, he had indeed remained faithful. Seven years later ('Just like Jacob!' had said Kate, urging her nurse to the altar), when Sarah had come back to England with her widowed master and his daughter, he had renewed his suit, and his constancy had been rewarded: Miss Sarah Publow had changed her name to Nidd, and had lost no time at all in assuming the control of her husband's family, and vastly improving their fortunes. Within a year, she had bullied and cajoled her aged father-in-law into spending his jealously hoarded savings on the acquisition of the inn which now provided the firm with spacious headquarters, and had transformed it from a single carrier into an establishment which, if it did not yet rival Pickford's, was in a fair way to providing Pickford's with some healthy competition. Her husband adored her; his father, while losing no opportunity to get the better of her, had been known to inform his cronies at the Cock, when mellowed by a sufficient quantity of what he inelegantly termed belly-juice, that she was a sure card; his sisters wavered between ineffective resentment of her managing disposition, and a comfortable dependence on her willingness to assist them in any difficulty; and his nephews, all as inarticulate as he was himself, said simply that you wouldn't get a more bang-up dinner anywhere than what Aunt Sarey would give you.

Even Miss Malvern, for all her four-and-twenty years, turned instinctively to her in times of trouble, and was insensibly reassured by her air of competence. Tucked now into bed, told that there was no need to get into high fidgets, and adjured to go to sleep, she thought, snuggling into the feathered softness, that perhaps she had allowed herself to become too despondent, and that Sarah really did know best.

But Sarah, stumping downstairs again to the kitchen, was feeling far from competent; and although the dinner she presently set before her husband, her father-in-law, one of her nephews, and two of the lads employed in the stables, in no way betrayed her inward perturbation, she ate very little of her own portion, and was a trifle short in her responses to the remarks addressed to her. This circumstance did not escape the notice of Mr Nidd Senior, or of Mr Nidd Junior, but when the younger Nidd, a simple-minded soul, began anxiously to ask if anything were amiss his more astute sire cut him short, adjuring him not to be a jobbernoll, and inquiring affably of Sarah if it wasn't Miss Kate he'd seen crossing the yard a while back. 'Which I hopes it was,' he said, mopping up the gravy on his plate with a large lump of bread, 'for she's been first-oars with me from the moment I clapped eyes on her, and she's heartily welcome. A prettier gal I never did see, and nothing niffy-naffy about her! Sweet as a nut, she is, but for all she don't hold up her nose at folks like us she's a proper lady, and don't you forget it, young Ted!' he concluded, rounding suddenly on his grandson with such ferocity that the hapless youth dropped his knife. 'If you was to behave disrespectful to her, I'd lay your back open!'

Such was the awe in which his descendants held him that Young Ted, a brawny giant, saw nothing absurd in this threat, but informed him, in stammering haste, that nothing was further from his intentions than to treat Miss Kate with disrespect. He accepted this assurance, but caused the two hirelings to quake by saying: 'And as for you, you'll keep out of her way! Couple of clod-crushers!'

At this point, Sarah intervened, telling her father-in-law that there was no call for him to rake the poor lads down, and providing them with generous portions of apple-pie. She spoke sharply, but she was not unappreciative of the tribute he had paid her darling; and when the younger members of the party had withdrawn, and Mr Nidd had bade her empty her budget, she said in a much milder tone: 'Well, I don't means to fall into the dismals, but I am in a worry, Father: that I can't deny.'

'Ah!' said Mr Nidd. 'On account of Miss Kate. I suspicioned as much. What brought her back to Lunnon in such a crack? Not but what you don't have to tell me, because I ain't a cod's head! Someone's tried to give her a slip on the shoulder, which is what I thought would happen, for it stands to reason a spanking beauty like she is, which is allowed by them as should have known better to go jauntering round the country unbefriended, is bound to find herself in the briars.'

'Yes! And well I know it!' cried Sarah, stung by this palpable dig at herself. 'But what could I do, when her mind was made up, and she was as poor as a Church rat? I thought she'd be safe with that Mrs Astley!'

'That's where you was a woolly-crown, my girl,' said Mr Nidd, with a certain amount of satisfaction. 'Because if Mrs Astley's husband is a rabshackle—'

'It wasn't him!' interrupted Sarah, very much flushed. 'He behaved very proper to Miss Kate! It was Mrs Astley's brother! And he don't seem to have been a rabshackle, though he'd no business to go trying to kiss Miss Kate! He made her an offer!'

'Now, that,' said Mr Nidd, 'is something like! What Miss Kate wants is a husband!'

'You needn't think I don't know that, Father! If this young Grittleton had taken her fancy I'd have thanked God on my knees, for all she'd have been demeaning herself, she being above the Astleys' cut, but she didn't. A moon-calf is what she says he is.'

'Well, such ain't a particle of use to her,' said Mr Nidd, abandoning interest in young Grittleton. 'What is she meaning to do now, Sarey?'

'Hire herself out as a common abigail!' replied Sarah bitterly.

At this disclosure, the younger Mr Nidd looked very much shocked, and said that she must not be allowed to do it. He added diffidently: 'If she'd lower herself to live here, with you to take care of her, we'd be proud to have her, wouldn't we Father?'

'It's no matter what we'd be: it wouldn't fit!' responded Mr Nidd unhesitatingly. 'If you'd ever had any wits I'd be wondering where they'd gone a-begging! How I come to have a son that was no better than a chawbacon is something I'll never know, not if I live to be a hundred!'

'No! Nor I'll never know how you came to have a son with such a good heart!' snapped Sarah, rising instantly to Joe's defence. A mumbled remonstrance from him caused her to pat his hand, and to say in a mollified tone: 'I'm sure I don't want to offend you, Father, but I won't have you miscalling Joe. Not but what he's right, Joe: it
fit! But how to stop her doing what's beneath her I don't know! Perhaps your father does, so long-headed as he is!'

'You can lay your life I do!' said Mr Nidd, a gleam of triumph in his eye. To think I've a longer head than you, Sarey! What Miss Kate's got to have is a home with her own kin.'

'Ay! she did ought to have that!' agreed his son, much struck by this display of wisdom.

'I said it when the Major took and died, and I'll say it again,' pursued Mr Nidd. 'Her relations ought to be wrote to. And don't you pitch me any gammon about her not having none, like you did afore, Sarey, because it's hornswoggle! We all got kin of some sort.'

'Yes,' said Sarah slowly. 'But there's none left on my mistress' side but her sister, and if she'd lift a finger to help Miss Kate she's mightily changed since I knew her! What's more, Miss Kate wouldn't have anything to say to that set, nor I wouldn't wish her to, the way they behaved to her mama! I don't say she hasn't maybe got some cousins, but I don't know who they are, or where they live, or anything about them. And as for the Major, I never heard tell of any relations other than his half-sister, and he paid no more heed to her than she did to him. She married a titled gentleman that had a place called Staplewood, which made the Major laugh out when he read about it, telling my mistress that there was never anyone more ambitious than his sister, and the only thing that surprised him was that she was content with a baronet, instead of having set her cap at a duke, or a marquis, or some such. Still, I fancy he must be a high-up baronet, because the Major said: "Well done, Minerva! Broome of Staplewood, no less!" And my mistress told me that it was a very old family, that had lived at this Staplewood since I don't know when, and all as proud as peacocks. But I don't know where it may be, nor it wouldn't signify if I did, for the Major said his sister had risen quite beyond his touch now, and if he got more than a common bow from her, if ever they was to meet again, he'd have nothing more to do than bless himself for his good fortune, supposing he didn't suffer a palsy-stroke!' Her eyes filled. She wiped away the sudden tears, saying: 'He was always so full of fun and gig, poor dear gentleman! Whenever I think of the way —But it's no manner of use thinking of what's done, and can't be undone! The thing is that it isn't to be expected that
do anything to help Miss Kate, when she'd got to be too proud to behave civil to her own brother. Besides, I don't know where she lives!'

'That don't signify,' said Mr Nidd impatiently. 'There's books as will tell you where the nobles and the landed gentry lives! Ah, and there's directories, too! What I'm thinking is that a starched-up lady wouldn't wish for her niece to be hiring herself out like Miss Kate means to—Now, what's the matter with you, Joe?'

The younger Mr Nidd, who had been sitting with his brow furrowed in painful cogitation, opening his mouth as if to speak, and shutting it again, gulped, and answered diffidently that he rather thought he did know.

'Know what?' demanded his progenitor irascibly.

'Staplewood', produced Joe. 'Ay, that was it! Market Harborough! Leastways, it ain't there, but nearby, seemingly. Because the orders was to set the pack-case down at the Angel. Likely they would ha' sent in a cart, or a farm-wagon, maybe, to fetch it. I disremember what it was, but I got it in my head is was a
pack-case, such as you could put a pianny into— though I don't know it
a pianny, mind!'

BOOK: Cousin Kate
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