The Reluctant Widow
by Georgette Heyer
At this point, Miss Rochdale, who had all the time been standing by the table, listening with gradually increasing appreciation to young Mr Carlyon's artless recital, was betrayed into uttering a sound between a choke and a gasp. It brought Carlyon's head round quickly; he said; "We are both of us forgetful of our manners. You will allow me to introduce my brother Nicholas to you, Miss Rochdale. Nicky, you do not know Miss Rochdale, I think."
"Oh, no! I beg pardon! I did not immediately perceive -- How do you do?" Nicky stammered, making his bow.
She gave her hand. "Pray do not regard it! It was very natural you should not. I should have left you with your brother but that I do not know my way about this house, and had no very clear notion where I should go. Perhaps, my lord, I might await you in --"
"No, I beg you will be seated, Miss Rochdale. I shall not detain you for many minutes more, I trust."
"Ned, you do not say so, but I know very well you cannot like this!" Nicky burst out. "And indeed I would rather by far that you should curse me for putting you in such a fix, for of course I see that is just what I have done, though I never meant to, and Bedlington, and the rest of them, will set it about that you wanted me to pick a quarrel with Eustace, and I can't see how it will all end!"
"No, I don't like it at all," Carlyon replied, "but there would be very little sense in my cursing you for what you could not help. It has been an unlucky mischance, but we must trust to come about. I dare say we shall do so. Did the knife enter some vital organ? Was he killed instantly?"
"Oh, no! In fact, I did not at first think - it seemed so unlikely that I could possibly have -- But when Greenlaw saw him -"
"Greenlaw is there?" Carlyon interrupted.
"Yes - oh, yes! Well, of course, as soon as I knew what had occurred I ran instantly to fetch him. I thought you would say I should do so, though I never supposed it was anything but what might be easily mended. But Greenlaw says he will not last the night, and --"
"Are you telling me that Eustace is still alive?" Carlyon asked sharply.
"I don't know, but I fancy so. Greenlaw said it could not be many hours, but --"
"Good God, Nicky, why did you not tell me this before? It puts quite a different complexion on the matter!"
"Does it make it better?" Nicky asked hopefully.
"Most certainly it does! One evil consequence may at least be averted. How came you here? In Hitchin's gig?"
"Yes - and now I come to think of it I have left it standing outside, so I had best --"
"Matthew may drive it back to Wisborough Green. Tell him so! You will find my travelling carriage in the stable yard: desire Steyning to convey you to the Hall, and say I shall not need him again to-night. Now go, Nicky! and mind you do not talk of this to any save John!"
"Yes, but, Ned, I had as lief --"
"No, do as I bid you!"
"Yes, but where do you go, Ned?"
"I am going to Eustace, of course, to try what I can do to untangle this coil."
"Well, I think I should come with you. For, after all --"
"You would be very much in the way, Make your bow to Miss Rochdale, and be off!"
He was obeyed, but reluctantly. As the door closed behind him, Carlyon turned to Elinor, and said without preamble: "It is a fortunate circumstance that you were here. I fancy I have no need to explain to you that the man now lying at Wisborough Green is my cousin?"
"Indeed, no! I had collected that he must be the man I was supposed to be going to marry."
"He is the man you are going to marry," he replied, with decision.
She stared at him. "What can you possibly mean?"
"You heard my brother: Cheviot is not yet dead. If we can reach Wisborough Green while he still breathes, and is in possession of his senses, you may be married to him, and he may leave his estate away from me. Come, I have no time to lose!"
"No!" she cried. "No, I will not do it!"
"You must do it: the matter is now become of too much moment to allow of my permitting you to talk yourself out of arguments. While there was no immediate prospect of Eustace's death I might respect the scruples which led you to refuse to marry him, but all that is changed. In doing what I tell you now you will run no risk of discovering disagreeable consequences in the future. You will be a widow before the morning."
"There is one consequence that remains unchanged!" she retorted. "You are asking me to sell myself, to marry a dying man for the advantages it may bring me, and every feeling must be offended by such --"
"I am doing no such thing. I offer you nothing."
"You said - you gave me to understand I was to become, in plain words, your pensioner!"
"What I said an hour ago is no longer to the purpose. I am asking you to help me."
"Oh, it is wrong! I knew it is wrong, and crazy beside!" she exclaimed, wringing her hands. "How can you think to put me in such a position? Can you not perceive --"
"Yes, I can perceive, but I am thinking very much of you at this present. I will engage to shield you to the best of my power from scandalous whisperings, and I believe I know how that may be achieved, but all that is for the future."
"Oh, you are abominable!" she said indignantly.
"I am anything you please, Miss Rochdale, but there will be time
enough to tell me so later. I am going now to fetch my curricle
up to the house. I shall not be many minutes."