Charity Girl

by Georgette Heyer

Henrietta came in, leading Miss Steane by the hand.

"Mama, here is poor little Cherry, who has been having a horridly uncomfortable time, as I collect Desford will have told you. She is quite worn down by her troubles, but she would have me bring her to you before I tuck her into bed. Now, my dear, you can see for yourself that my mother is no more a dragon that I am!"

"So pleased!" said Lady Silverdale, in a faint voice, and favouring Cherry with a very slight inclination of her head. "Hetta, my love, my cordial!"

Quite dismayed, Cherry whispered: "I should not have come! Oh, I knew I should not! I beg your pardon, ma'am!"

Lady Silverdale was a selfish but not an unfeeling woman, and this stricken speech, coupled as it was with a face pale with weariness, considerably mollified her. It was clearly impossible to cast this miserable little girl out of the house, so although she maintained the attitude of one on the brink of sinking into a swoon, and continued to speak in a faint, long-suffering voice, she said: "Oh, not at all! You must forgive me if I leave it to my daughter to show you to your bedroom: I have been very unwell, and my medical attendant warns me that I must avoid all unnecessary exertion. So unfortunate that you should have come to visit us at just this moment! But my daughter will look after you. Pray tell me if there is anything you would wish for! A glass of hot milk, perhaps, before you retire to bed."

"I fancy, ma'am, that she needs something more substantial than a glass of milk," said the Viscount, perceiving that Cherry was looking quite crushed, and most improperly flickering a wink at her.

"Well, of course she does!" said Henrietta. "She is going to have supper as soon as I've tucked her into bed."

"Oh, thank you!" said Cherry gratefully. "I don't feel I deserve to be given such a treat, but I would very much like it! Aunt Bugle never allowed me to have--"

She broke off in consternation, for these words had had a startling effect on her hostess. At one moment leaning limply back in her chair, and sniffing at her vinaigrette, she suddenly abandoned this moribund pose, sat bolt upright, and said sharply: "Who did you say?"

"M-my Aunt Bugle, ma'am," faltered Cherry.

Lady Silverdale's bosom swelled visibly. "That woman!" she pronounced awfully. "Do you mean to tell me she is your aunt, child?"

"Yes, ma'am," said Cherry, trembling.

"Are you acquainted with her, Mama?"

"We were brought out in the same season!" disclosed Lady Silverdale dramatically. "I beg you will not speak to me of Amelia Bugle! A bouncing, flouncing young female, setting her cap at every single gentleman that crossed her path, and fancying herself to be a beauty, which she was not, for she had a deplorable figure, and a particularly ugly nose, and as for the pretentious airs she gave herself when she caught Bugle, and took to thinking herself the pink of gentility, I laugh whenever I remember them!"

Laughter did not appear to be her predominant emotion, though she did utter a Ha! of withering sarcasm. Henrietta, briefly meeting Desford's dancing eyes, said, with a quivering lip: "We collect, Mama, that she wasn't one of your bosom-bows!"

"Certainly not! But I remained on common civility terms with her until she had the effrontery to thrust herself before me in a doorway, saying, like the self-important mushroom she was, that she fancied she must take precedence since her husband's baronetcy was an older creation than Silverdale's! After that, of course, I never did more than bow to her, or felt the smallest interest in her. Come and sit down beside me, my dear child, and tell me all about her! I am persuaded she used you shamefully, for I recall that she was never used to waste a particle of politeness on people she considered to be beneath her. You did very right to leave her!"

She patted the place beside her on the sofa invitingly, and Cherry, swiftly recovering from her astonishment, smiled shyly, dropped a little curtsy, and accepted the invitation. The curtsy pleased Lady Silverdale; she was moved to press Cherry's hand, and to say: "Poor child! There! You will not meet with Turkish treatment in this house! Is it true that That Woman has five daughters?"

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