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Authors: Georgette Heyer

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

Cousin Kate (28 page)

BOOK: Cousin Kate
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Kate, who had already stolen several glances at the portrait, answered: 'I wondered if it was. I wish I had known her.'

'She was an angel,' he said simply.

Knowing that his mind had drifted back into the past, Kate remained sympathetically silent. His eyes were still fixed on the portrait, fondly smiling; and Kate, also looking at it, thought that no greater contrast to the first Lady Broome than the second could have been found. Anne had been as fair as Minerva was dark, and nothing in her face, or her languid pose, suggested the vitality which characterized the second Lady Broome. It might have been the fault of the artist, but, although she had a sweet face it lacked decision. She was reasonably pretty, but not beautiful: the sort of woman, Kate thought, one might easily fail to recognize, unless one had been particularly well-acquainted with her. No one who had once met the second Lady Broome could fail to recognize her again.

She was still gazing at the portrait when she discovered, to her discomfiture, that Sir Timothy had withdrawn his eyes from it, and was watching her instead. 'No,' he said, as though he had read her thought, 'she wasn't like your aunt.'

'No, sir,' agreed Kate, unable to think of anything else to say.

He stretched out a frail hand to pick up the decanter, and refilled his glass. 'Your aunt has many good qualities, Kate,' he said, with deliberation, 'but you must not allow her to bullock you.'

'No, I d-don't mean to!' Kate replied, stammering a little. 'But she hasn't tried to - to bullock me, sir! She has been only too kind to me - far, far too kind!'

'She is a woman of great determination,' continued Sir Timothy, as though Kate had not spoken. 'Also, she is ruled, mistakenly, I think, by what she conceives to be her duty. I don't know why she brought you here, or why she treats you with kindness, but I do know that it was not out of compassion. Some end she has in view. I don't know what it may be: I have not cared enough to discover what it is.' He raised his eyes from their contemplation of the wine in his glass, and turned them towards Kate. She saw that they smiled in self-derision, and was shocked. He returned his gaze to his wineglass, and said cynically: 'You will find, my child, that as you approach the end of your life you will no longer care greatly for anything, and will be too tired to take up arms against a superior force. One becomes detached.'

'You still care for Staplewood!' Kate said, in an effort to raise his spirits.

'Do I? I did once, but of late years I have grown aloof from it. I am beginning to realize that when I am dead it won't matter to me any longer, for I shall know nothing about it.' He raised his glass to his lips, and sipped delicately. 'Oh, don't look so distressed! If I cared—' He stopped, and stared ahead into the shadows beyond the table, as though he were trying to see something hidden in them, and yet was afraid to see it. His lips twisted into a wry smile, and he brought his eyes slowly back to Kate's face. 'Perhaps it's as well we can't see into the future!' he said lightly. 'I didn't think I cared for the present either or for people, but I find myself fond of you, Kate - as if you were my daughter! - which is why I've roused myself from my deplorable lethargy to warn you not to let yourself be bullied or coaxed into doing anything your heart, and your good sense, tell you not to do.'

Kate began to speak, but he checked her, with a thin hand upraised, and a shrinking expression in his eyes. 'I don't know what it is that Minerva has in mind, and I don't wish to know,' he said, on a querulous note of old age. 'I'm too old and too tired! I only want to be left in peace!'

Kate said calmly: 'Yes, sir. I shan't do anything to disturb your peace. You may be sure of that!'

He drank a little more wine, and seemed to regain his customary detachment, and, with it, his - tranquillity. He sat in silence for a minute or two, watching the play of the candlelight on the wine still remaining in his glass, but presently he sighed, and said: 'Poor Minerva! She should have married a public man, not a man who had never an ambition to figure in the world, and was worn-out besides. She has many faults, but I cannot forget that when my health broke down she abandoned the life she loved without one word of complaint, and brought me home - for I was too ill then to decide anything for myself - and would never afterwards own that she wished to return to London. She has a strong - compelling - sense of duty, as I've told you: it is a virtue which she sometimes carries to excess. She has also unbounded energy, which I have not, I am ashamed to say. She's ambitious, too: she wanted me to enter politics: couldn't understand that I'd no interest - no wish to shine in that world! Or in any other,' he added reflectively. 'It was my brother Julian who was ambitious-Philip's father, you know. I never had but one ambition: to hand my inheritance on to my son! It seemed to me to be of the first importance that the line should not be broken. Well, no matter for that! When the doctors told Minerva that London life wouldn't do for me, and she came to live with me here, from year's end to year's end, she knew she must find another interest, or mope herself to death. That was admirable: another woman, of less strength of character, would have repined, and dwindled into a decline!'

'But instead,' Kate reminded him, 'she interested herself in what she knew to be dear to you: Staplewood!'

He was shaken by soft laughter. 'Ironical, isn't it? I taught her to love Staplewood; I taught her to be proud of the Broome tradition; I encouraged her to squander a fortune transforming the gardens, and replacing all the furniture in the house, which she declared to be too modern, with furniture of an antique date. I daresay she was right. Perhaps the mahogany chairs and tables which my father bought, and the carpets he laid down, were out of harmony with the house: I never thought so, but I grew up with them, and accepted them, without thinking much about them. But I think I haven't much taste. I recall that Julian, when he came here once on a visit, said that Minerva had improved the place out of recognition. That was high praise, for he had excellent taste himself. But as Minerva's interest in Staplewood grew, mine diminished. Unreasonable, wasn't it?'

'Perhaps,' said Kate diffidently, 'you felt it had become more hers than yours, sir.'

He considered this, slightly frowning. 'No, I don't think so. I don't feel that to this day. I've always known that it was within my power to call a halt, but I've never done so. At first because I was glad that she was so eager to enter into my own feeling for Staplewood; and later - oh, later, because, in part, I knew I was to blame: it was I who had encouraged her to devote herself to the place, and how, when she had learnt to love it, could I discourage her? And, in part, because I felt myself to be unequal to a struggle with her.' The derisive smile touched his lips again. 'I like to blame my declining health for that, but the truth is that Minerva has a stronger character than mine. She doesn't shrink from battle as I do, and she is by far more ingenious than I am. All I wish for is peace! Very ignoble! Dear me, how I've rambled on! One of the infirmities of old age, my dear! But I have begun to be uneasy about you, and I know your aunt as you do not. I've told you what are her good qualities, so you won't think I don't recognize them when I tell you that you are deceiving yourself if you believe that her kindness and her caresses spring from affection. Poor Minerva! She is a stranger to the tender feelings which elevate your sex, and make us coarser creatures adore you!'

She smiled at this, but said: 'I am not deceived, sir. I must be grateful to my aunt for her exceeding kindness, but I know that she brought me here to serve - oh, a foolish end! I have told her that I shan't do so, and I can assure you that I shan't let myself be coaxed, or bullied. So pray don't tease yourself any more! I am very well able to care for myself.'

He looked relieved, and proposed a rubber of piquet. It was plain that whatever he might guess he shrank from having his suspicions confirmed, and would not willingly intervene in his wife's schemes. Kate liked him too well to despise him, but she was forced to realize that there was a milkiness in his character which did indeed make him appear ignoble. It was possible that his health was responsible for his reluctance to face a difficult situation, but she could not help feeling that he had probably chosen, all his life, to look the other way when in danger of being faced with anything unpleasant. She made no attempt to embroil him with his wife, but received his invitation to play cards with every appearance of cordiality. In fact, she had hoped to have escaped one of these sessions, and to have had an opportunity to retire early to her bedchamber, not because she wished to go to bed, but because she had as yet had no opportunity to think over all that had occurred during the most eventful day of those she had spent at Staplewood. The extraordinary happenings had begun with Torquil's disquieting behaviour in the park; this had been followed by the astonishing news that Mr Nidd was in Market Harborough; and the climax had been reached when she had received an offer of marriage from Mr Philip Broome. This, not unnaturally, had cast everything else into the background; and she was honest enough to admit to herself that very little of the period of reflection which she had so earnestly desired would be wasted in consideration of any other problem. She felt that her mind was in turmoil, making it impossible for her to concentrate on the play of her cards. And, strangely enough, it was not the chief problem which teased her: whether or not to accept Philip's offer: but a host of minor difficulties, which her experience of the male sex led her to think that Philip would dismiss as frivolities. But they were not frivolous, nor would the Broomes think them so. When she left Staplewood, she would leave also everything that Lady Broome had given her, and how, with barely enough in hei purse to bestow vails on Ellen, and on Pennymore, was she to purchase her bride-clothes? And from whose house was she to be married? And who would give her away, in her father's place? These details might seem unimportant to Philip, but they would not seem unimportant to his relations; and although he might say that he didn't care a pin for their opinions he would be a very odd man if he did not wish his bride to present a creditable appearance. A bride who was unattended by relations of her own, and came to Church from a carrier's yard, would inevitably earn the contempt, and perhaps the pity, of the Broomes, and that would gall Philip past endurance.

She wondered if this had occurred to him, and whether he might already be regretting his rash proposal; and, if so, whether he would find an excuse to cry off, or put a brave face on it. She felt that she could bear it best if he were to cry off, but she also felt that he was not the kind of man to play the jilt, and became so lost in these melancholy reflections that Sir Timothy asked her if she was tired.

Could she have but known it, Philip was not regretting it in the least; and none of the difficulties which she perceived had occurred to him. Nor would they have dismayed him had they done so. Oh the contrary, he would have welcomed them as heaven-sent excuses to escape from the fashionable wedding so much more desirable to women than to men. Had he been asked what kind of a wedding he would like to have, he would have replied without an instant's hesitation that he would much prefer a private ceremony, with no guests invited, except a groomsman to act as his best man, and Sarah Nidd to give Kate away.

In point of fact, he was not, at that moment, thinking about weddings. On arrival at Freshford House he had driven his curricle to the stables, and had handed his horses over to Mr Templecombe's head-groom. Halfway to the house, he was met by his host, who greeted him by demanding, in incredulous accents, if her ladyship was trying to discourage his visits to Staplewood by refusing to house his groom.

'That's it,' replied Philip cheerfully.

'Well, I thought that must be the reason why you tipped me the office to bite my tongue! Coming it strong, ain't she? I've heard of hosts who make it a rule not to house their guest's postilions or cattle-some of 'em stipulate that only one servant is allowed! - but I call it the outside of enough to tell you she won't have your groom! Next she'll be asking you not to bring your valet!'

'Oh, she didn't say she wouldn't have my groom! She merely suggested that his presence added unnecessarily to the expenses of maintaining the establishment, and hinted that some unlucky investments had made it imperative for my uncle to retrench. As for Knowle, she has no need to ask me not to bring him! From the moment that the servants at Staplewood discovered that he was not so much a gentlemans' gentleman as a general factotum they treated him - even Pennymore! - with an hauteur which made him so uncomfortable that he begged me not to bring him here again! Tenby looks after me - and, since I don't belong to the dandy-set, and am perfectly able to dress myself without assistance, that doesn't impose a very arduous task upon him!'

'I wonder that Sir Timothy should permit such a thing!' Mr Templecomble blurted out.

'He doesn't know it,' said Philip curtly. 'And he won't know of it from me! He is far from well -seems to have aged overnight! He lives in his own wing of the house for the most part of the day. When I remember—' He broke off, clipping his lips together.

'Very distressing,' agreed Mr Templecombe sympathetically. 'Haven't seen him riding out this age. I know he don't hunt nowadays, but he was used to hack round his estates until he had that nasty attack last year. Didn't seem to pluck up after it. Think he's had notice to quit, dear boy?'

'I don't know. He is so much changed! He seems to be content to let all go as it will - wishes only to be left in peace! I suppose, looking back, he always had too gentle a disposition - no stomach for a fight! But in those days, while my aunt lived, he was not put to the test: they were in perfect accord!'

BOOK: Cousin Kate
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