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Authors: Georgette Heyer

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

The Corinthian

BOOK: The Corinthian
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The Corinthian

Georgette Heyer

1941

 

Chapter 1

 

T
he company, ushered by a disapproving butler into the yellow saloon of Sir Richard Wyndham's house in St James's Square, comprised two ladies and one reluctant gentleman. The gentleman, who was not much above thirty years of age, but sadly inclined to fat, seemed to feel the butler's disapproval, for upon that dignified individual's informing the elder of the two ladies that Sir Richard was not at home, he cast a deprecating glance at him, not in the least the glance of a peer of the realm upon a menial, but an age-old look of one helpless man to another, and said in a pleading tone: 'Well, then, don't you think, Lady Wyndham—? Louisa, hadn't we better—? I mean, no use going in, my love, is there?'

Neither his wife nor his mother-in-law paid any attention to this craven speech. 'If my brother is gone out, we will await his return,' said Louisa briskly.

'Your poor Papa was always out when one wanted him,' complained Lady Wyndham. 'It is very affecting to me to see Richard growing every day more like him.'

Her fading accents were so lachrymose that it seemed probable that she would dissolve into tears upon her son's doorstep. George, Lord Trevor, was uneasily aware of a handkerchief, clutched in one thin, gloved hand, and put forward no further objection to entering the house in the wake of the two ladies.

Declining all offers of refreshment, Lady Trevor escorted her parent into the Yellow Saloon, settled her comfortably upon a satin sofa, and announced her intention of remaining in St James's Square all day, if need be. George, with a very clear idea, born of sympathy, of what would be his brother-in-law's emotions upon returning to his residence to find a family deputation in possession of it, said unhappily: 'You know, I don't think we should, really I don't! I don't like it above half. I wish you would drop this notion you've taken into your heads:'

His wife, who was engaged in stripping off her lavender-kid gloves, threw him a look of indulgent contempt. 'My dear George, if
you
are afraid of Richard, let me assure you that
I
am not.'

'Afraid of him! No, indeed! But I wish you will consider that a man of nine-and-twenty won't relish having his affairs meddled with. Besides, he will very likely wonder what the deuce it has to do with me, and I'm sure I can't tell him! I wish I had not come.'

Louisa ignored this remark, considering it unworthy of being replied to, which indeed it was, since she ruled her lord with a rod of iron. She was a handsome woman, with a great deal of decision in her face, and a leavening gleam of humour. She was dressed, not perhaps in the height of fashion, which decreed that summer gauzes must reveal every charm of a lady's body, but with great elegance and propriety. Since she had a very good figure, the prevailing mode for high-waisted dresses, with low-cut bodices, and tiny puff-sleeves, became her very well: much better, in fact, than skin-tight pantaloons, and a long-tailed coat became her husband.

Fashion was not kind to George. He looked his best in buckskin breeches and top-boots, but he was unfortunately addicted to dandyism, and pained his friends and relatives by adopting every extravagance of dress, spending as much time over the arrangement of his cravat as Mr Brummell himself, and squeezing his girth into tight stays which had a way of creaking whenever he moved unwarily.

The third member of the party, reclining limply on the satin sofa, was a lady with quite as much determination as her daughter, and a far more subtle way of getting her wishes attended to. A widow of ten years' standing, Lady Wyndham enjoyed the frailest health. The merest hint of opposition was too much for the delicate state of her nerves; and anyone, observing her handkerchief, her vinaigrette, and the hartshorn which she usually kept by her, would have had to be stupid indeed to have failed to appreciate their sinister message. In youth, she had been a beauty; in middle age, everything about her seemed to have faded: hair, cheeks, eyes, and even her voice, which was plaintive, and so gentle that it was a wonder it ever made itself heard. Like her daughter, Lady Wyndham had excellent taste in dress, and since she was fortunate enough to possess a very ample jointure she was able to indulge her liking for the most expensive fal-lals of fashion without in any way curtailing her other expenses. This did not prevent her from thinking herself very badly off, but she was able to enjoy many laments over her straitened circumstances without feeling the least real pinch of poverty, and to win the sympathy of her acquaintances by dwelling sadly on the injustice of her late husband's will, which had placed his only son in the sole possession of his immense fortune. The jointure, her friends deduced hazily, was the veriest pittance.

Lady Wyndham, who lived in a charming house in Clarges Street, could never enter the mansion in St James's Square without suffering a pang. It was not, as might have been supposed from the look of pain she always cast upon it, a family domicile, but had been acquired by her son only a couple of years before. During Sir Edward's lifetime, the family had lived in a much larger, and most inconvenient house in Grosvenor Square. Upon Sir Richard's announcement that he proposed to set up an establishment of his own, this had been given up, so that Lady Wyndham had been able ever since to mourn its loss without being obliged to suffer any longer its inconveniences. But however much she might like her own house in Clarges Street it was not to be supposed that she could bear with equanimity her son's inhabiting a far larger house in St James's Square; and when every other source of grievance failed her, she always came back to that, and said, as she said now, in an ill-used voice: 'I cannot conceive what he should want with a house like this!'

Louisa, who had a very good house of her own, besides an estate in Berkshire, did not in the least grudge her brother his mansion. She replied: 'It doesn't signify, Mama. Except that he must have been thinking of marriage when he bought it. Would you not say so, George?'

George was flattered at being thus appealed to, but he was an honest, painstaking person, and he could not bring himself to say that he thought Richard had had any thought of marriage in his head, either when he had bought the house, or at any other time.

Louisa was displeased. 'Well!' she said, looking resolute, 'he must be brought to think of marriage!'

Lady Wyndham lowered her smelling-salts to interpolate: 'Heaven knows I would never urge my boy to do anything distasteful, but it has been an understood thing for years that he and Melissa Brandon would seal the long friendship between our families with the Nuptial Tie!'

George goggled at her, and wished himself otherwhere.

'If he doesn't wish to marry Melissa, I'm sure I should be the last person to press her claim,' said Louisa. 'But it is high time that he married someone, and if he has no other suitable young female in his eye, Melissa it must be.'

'I do not know how to face Lord Saar,' bemoaned Lady Wyndham, raising the vinaigrette to her nose again. 'Or poor dear Emily, with three girls besides Melissa to dispose of, and none of them more than passable. Sophia has spots, too.'

'I do not consider Augusta hopeless,' said Louisa fairly. 'Amelia, too, may improve.'

'Squints!' said George.

'A slight cast in one eye,' corrected Louisa. 'However, we are not concerned with that. Melissa is an extremely handsome creature. No one can deny
that!'

'And such a desirable connection!' sighed Lady Wyndham. 'Quite one of the best families!'

'They tell me Saar won't last another five years, not at the rate he's going now,' said George. 'Everything mortgaged up to the hilt, and Saar drinking himself into his grave! They say his father did the same.'

Both ladies regarded him with disfavour. 'I hope, George, you do not mean to imply that Melissa is addicted to the bottle?' said his wife.

'Oh no, no! Lord, no, I never thought of such a thing! I'm sure she's an excellent young woman. But this I will say, Louisa: I don't blame Richard if he don't want her!' said George defiantly. 'Myself, I'd as soon marry a statue!'

'I must say,' conceded Louisa, 'she is a trifle cold, perhaps. But it is a very delicate position for her, you'll allow. It has been understood since both were children that she and Richard would make a match of it, and
she
knows that as well as
we
do. And here is Richard, behaving in the most odious way! I am out of all patience with him!'

George rather liked his brother-in-law, but he knew that it would be foolhardy to defend him, so he held his peace. Lady Wyndham took up the tale of woe. 'Heaven forbid that I should force my only son to a disagreeable marriage, but I live in hourly dread of his bringing home some dreadful, low-born creature on his arm, and expecting me to welcome her!'

A vision of his brother-in-law crossed George's mind's eye. He said doubtfully: 'Really, you know, I don't think he'll do that, ma'am.'

'George is quite right,' announced Louisa. 'I should think the better of Richard if he did. It quite shocks me to see him so impervious to every feminine charm! It is a great piece of nonsense for him to dislike the opposite sex, but one thing is certain: dislike females he may, but he owes a duty to the name, and marry he must! I am sure I have been at pains to introduce him to every eligible young woman in town, for I am by no means set on his marrying Melissa Brandon. Well! He would not look twice at any of them, so if that is the mind he is in, Melissa will suit him very well.'

'Richard thinks they all want him for his money,' ventured George.

'I dare say they may. What has that to say to anything, pray? I imagine you do not mean to tell me that Richard is romantic!'

No, George was forced to admit that Richard was not romantic.

'If I live to see him suitably married, I can die content!' said Lady Wyndham, who had every expectation of living for another thirty years. 'His present course fills my poor mother's heart with foreboding!'

Loyalty forced George to expostulate. 'No, really, ma'am! Really, I say! There's no harm in Richard, not the least in the world, 'pon my honour!'

'He puts me out of all patience!' said Louisa. 'I love him dearly, but I despise him with all my heart! Yes, I do, and I do not care who hears me say so! He cares for nothing but the set of his cravat, the polish on his boots, and the blending of his snuff!'

'His horses!' begged George unhappily. 'Oh, his horses! Very well! Let us admit him to be a famous whip! He beat Sir John Lade in their race to Brighton! A fine achievement indeed!'

'Very handy with his fives!' gasped George, sinking but game.

'You
may admire a man for frequenting Jackson's Saloon, and Cribb's Parlour!
I
do not!'

'No, my love,' George said. 'No, indeed, my love!'

'And I make no doubt you see nothing reprehensible in his addiction to the gaming-table! But I had it on the most excellent authority that he dropped three thousand pounds at one sitting at Almack's!'

Lady Wyndham moaned, and dabbed at her eyes. 'Oh, do not say so!'

'Yes, but he's so devilish wealthy it can't signify!' said George.

'Marriage,' said Louisa, 'will put a stop to such fripperies.'

The depressing picture this dictum conjured up reduced George to silence. Lady Wyndham said, in a voice dark with mystery: 'Only a mother could appreciate my anxieties. He is at a dangerous age, and I live from day to day in dread of what he may do!'

George opened his mouth, encountered a look from his wife, shut it again, and tugged unhappily at his cravat.

The door opened; a Corinthian stood upon the threshold, cynically observing his relatives. 'A thousand apologies,' said the Corinthian, bored but polite. 'Your very obedient servant, ma'am. Louisa, yours! My poor George! Ah—was I expecting you?'

'Apparently not!' retorted Louisa, bristling.

'No, you weren't. I mean, they took it into their heads—
I
couldn't stop them!' said George heroically.

'I thought I was not,' said the Corinthian, closing the door, and advancing into the room. 'But my memory, you know, my lamentable memory!'

George, running an experienced eye over his brother-in-law, felt his soul stir. 'B'gad, Richard, I like that! That's a devilish well-cut coat, 'pon my honour, it is! Who made it?'

Sir Richard lifted an arm, and glanced at his cuff. 'Weston, George, only Weston.'

'George!' said Louisa awfully.

Sir Richard smiled faintly, and crossed the room to his mother's side. She held out her hand to him, and he bowed over it with languid grace, just brushing it with his lips. 'A thousand apologies, ma'am!' he repeated. 'I trust my people have looked after you—er—
all
of you?' His lazy glance swept the room. 'Dear me!' he said. 'George, you are near to it: oblige me, my dear fellow, by pulling the bell!'

'We do not need any refreshment, I thank you, Richard,' said Louisa.

The faint, sweet smile silenced her as none of her husband's expostulations had ever done. 'My dear Louisa, you mistake—I assure you, you mistake! George is in the most urgent need of—er—stimulant. Yes, Jeffries, I rang. The Madeira—oh, ah! and some ratafia, Jeffries, if you please!'

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