by Georgette Heyer
It was a bow drawn at a venture, since, for anything he knew, Clara had inherited her mother's temper, but he saw from Mrs Alperton's face that he had the target. She looked angrily at him, but hardly hesitated before replying: "Oh, dear me, no! Well do you know that the sweet creature, loving you so truly as she does, would allow herself to be trampled to death rather than throw the least rub in the way of anything you wanted to do, even if it killed her, which I am afraid for my life it will do, for never have I seen her so low and disordered - scarcely able to raise her head from the pillow, and done-up with weeping! I shouldn't wonder at it if she was to dwindle into a decline."
Kit shook his head. "You shock me, ma'am. Do you know, I had no notion she suffered from such a profound sensibility?"
He felt himself to be on safe ground, for his imagination boggled at the vision of Evelyn developing the smallest tendre for so lachrymose a female. Apparently he had again hit the target, for Mrs Alperton informed him, in a voice of suppressed fury, that he little knew how much Clara sank under agitating reflections, or how hard it was for her to wear a smiling face whenever he chose to visit her.
"If that's so, I should suppose her to be thankful to be rid of me," he remarked, unable to repress an involuntary chuckle. He saw that Mrs Alperton was about to burst into further recriminations, and flung up a hand. "No, no, enough, ma'am! You've performed your errand! I am excessively sorry to hear of Clara's distressing state, and I beg you will return to her bedside with all possible speed. Convey my deepest regrets to her that I have been the unwitting cause of her disorder, and assure her that as soon as it may be possible for me to do so I shall hasten to visit her."
The issue seemed for a few moments to hang in the balance; but Mrs Alperton was made of resilient stuff. Abandoning all semblance of concern for her daughter's broken heart, she said roughly: "Not till you come down with the derbies! I know your sort! A regular bounce, that's what you are, but you won't nurse my girl out of her due, not while I'm alive to protect her!"
"Mrs Alperton," said Kit coldly, "you are making a mistake! I don't run thin, but I am not a pigeon for your plucking! Clara will not find me ungenerous, but whatever may be the arrangements agreed upon it will be between her and me, and no one else."
"Oh, will it indeed?" she ejaculated. "Will it? If that's your tone, my Lord Brass-face, I don't leave this house until I've opened my budget to Miss Stavely! Try to have me put out if you dare! And don't tell me she's gone out, and won't be back till nightfall, because if I believed you, which I don't, I'd wait till midnight, and longer!"
At this point an entirely unexpected voice made itself heard. "What a fortunate circumstance that I haven't gone out!" said Miss Stavely. "Did you wish to see me, ma'am?"
Since Kit had been standing with his back to the door, his person obscuring Mrs Alperton's view of it, neither of them had seen it open a little way, and Cressy slip softly into the room. Mrs Alperton started, and let her parasol fall to the floor; but Kit spun round, the nonchalance wiped suddenly from his face, to be succeeded by a look of consternation.
Smiling brightly upon him, Cressy advanced into the room. Involuntarily he put out a hand to check her, but she ignored it, and went to sit down in a chair facing Mrs Alperton across the empty hearth. "Pray forgive me for interrupting you!" she said gracefully. "But you were speaking rather loudly, you know, ma'am, and I could not help but hear a little of what you were saying. I collect you have something you wish to tell me?"
"No!" said Kit.
Mrs Alperton, her high colour abating, glanced speculatively at him, before resuming her study of Cressy. There was an uncertain look in her eyes; and it was plainly to be seen that she was unable to decide whether Cressy's entrance could be turned to pecuniary advantage, or whether it had effectually spiked her guns. She said slowly, and to gain time: "So you're Stavely's girl, are you? You don't favour him much, by what I remember."
Accepting this familiarity with unruffled calm, Cressy replied: "No, I am thought to resemble my mother. Now, what is it that you wish to say to me, if you please?"
"As to that," said Mrs Alperton, "it's not my wish to say anything to you, not bearing you any ill-will, nor being one to tell tales, unless I'm pushed to it." She transferred her gaze to Kit's face, and said: "Maybe you'd prefer I kept mum, my lord?"
"But I shouldn't," intervened Cressy.
Mrs Alperton paid no heed to this, but continued to watch Kit maliciously. He met her eyes, and his own hardened. "I should infinitely prefer it," he said, "but I have warned you already that I am not a pigeon for your plucking! Take care what you're about, Mrs Alperton! The glue won't hold: you'll bowl yourself out."
"Not before I've bowled you out!" she declared venomously. "Which I'll be glad to do, for I'm a mother myself, and it would go to my heart to see an innocent girl deceived like my poor Clara has been! Ah, my dear, you little know what a cozening rascal has been casting out his wicked lures to you!"
Kit leaned his shoulders against the wall, folded his arms across his chest, and resigned himself.
"No, indeed!" agreed Cressy. "Is Clara your daughter, ma'am?"
"My daughter!" said Mrs Alperton, in a throbbing voice. "Seduced by that villain, and left to starve without so much as a leave-taking!"
"How very dreadful!" said Cressy. "I must say I am astonished! I should never have thought he would have behaved so shabbily."
Mrs Alperton was considerably taken aback. So too was Kit. He had hoped that Cressy would discredit the greater part of the story; but none of it was fit for the ears of a gently nurtured girl, and he had not dared to hope that she would not suffer a severe shock, attended by painful embarrassment. But neither he nor Mrs Alperton had taken into account the peculiar circumstances of her girlhood, of the undisguised gallantries of her father.
"Very improper indeed!" pursued Cressy. "I do most sincerely pity her - and you, too, ma'am, for nothing, I daresay, could be more disagreeable than to feel yourself compelled to remind Lord Denville of his obligations."
"No," said Mrs Alperton, a little dazed. "No, indeed!"
"But perhaps there is a misunderstanding?" suggested Cressy hopefully. "The thing is that he is abominably forgetful, you know. You did very right to put him in mind of the matter, for I am persuaded he will do just as he ought, now that he has remembered it, won't you, sir?"
"Just as I ought!" corroborated Kit.
"Well, upon my word!" gasped Mrs Alperton. "I never did, not in all my life! I'm telling you he's a rake, miss!"
"Yes, but do you think you should, ma'am?" asked Cressy diffidently. "I perfectly understand your telling him so, but it doesn't seem to be quite the thing to tell me, for it is not in the least my affair - though I am naturally very sorry for your daughter."
"I might have known it!" said Mrs Alperton terribly. "It wouldn't make a bit of difference to you if he was a murderer, I daresay! Oh the sinful hollowness of the world! That I should have lived to hear a lady of consequence - and single, too! - talk so bold and unblushing! Well, they didn't do so in my day, whatever they may have thought! Not those that held themselves up as the pink of gentility! And very right they shouldn't," she added, moved to a moment of sincerity. She seemed to be about to expatiate on this point, but changed her mind, and instead said, reverting to her original style: "And me coming to warn you, believing you was but an innocent, and my heart wrung to think of you married to one such as he is! You'll live to regret it, my girl, for all his gingerbread, and his grand title!"