by Georgette Heyer
Mr Liversedge was absent for some ten minutes, but presently the Duke heard his ponderous tread, and turned round to face the door.
It opened; Mr Liversedge's voice said unctuously: "Come in, my love! Come and tell Mr Ware how deeply he has wounded your tender heart!"
The Duke jumped, for this was a possibility he had not envisaged. The thought darted across his mind that if his true identity should be guessed it might occur to Mr Liversedge's fertile brains that the Duke of Sale, held to ransom, would prove a more profitable investment than his niece's broken heart. His hand slid once more into the pocket of his coat, to grasp the butt of his pistol, and he braced himself to face the inevitable disclosure.
Into the room stepped a vision of loveliness. The Duke caught his breath, and stood staring. His cousin Matthew had certainly spoken of Belinda's beauty, but he had not prepared him for anything as superb as the creature who now stood on the threshold, regarding him out of eyes so large, so innocent, and of so deep and translucent a blue as to make his senses swim for a dizzy moment. He closed his own eyes involuntarily, and opened them again to make sure that they had not deceived him. They had not. He beheld a veritable beauty. A face of rose-leaf complexion was framed in a cascade of guinea-gold curls, artlessly bound with a ribbon of scarcely a deeper blue than those glorious eyes; the brows were delicately arched; the little nose classically straight; the wistful mouth, with its short upper-lip, as kissable as it was perfect in proportion.
The Duke swallowed once, and waited. That melting gaze widened a little as it rested on him, but the lady said nothing.
"Did not Mr Ware promise you marriage, my love?" said Mr Liversedge, closing the door, and bending solicitously over the vision.
"Yes," said the vision, in a soft, west-country voice. "Oh, yes!"
If the Duke had been dizzy before, his senses now reeled. He could think of nothing to say. He wondered, for an unreasoning instant, if those tender eyes could be sightless, since he resembled his cousin hardly at all. But when he stared into them he saw a sort of speculation in their gaze, and knew that they were not.
"And did he not write you letters, my love, which you very properly gave to me, promising that he would make you his wife?" prompted Mr Liversedge.
"Oh, yes, he did!" corroborated Belinda, smiling angelically at the Duke, and affording him an entrancing glimpse of even teeth, gleaming like pearls between her parted lips.
Mr Liversedge spoke in a voice of studied patience. "Were you not completely taken-in, my dear child? Was it not a crushing blow to you when he declared off, and left you forsaken?"
Under the Duke"s bemused stare, the smile left Belinda's face, and two large tears welled over, and rolled down her cheeks. "Yes, it was," she said, in a voice that would have wrung pity from Herod. "He said I should have a purple silk dress when we was married."
Mr Liversedge interposed rather hastily, patting one dimpled hand. "To be sure, yes, and other things too! And now you shall have none of them!"
"No," agreed Belinda dolefully. "But I shall be paid a vast sum of money for being so taken-in, and then I may have a --"
"Yes, my love, yes!" interrupted Mr Liversedge. "You are upset, and no wonder! I would not have brought you face to face with Mr Ware, who has so grossly deceived you, but that he doubted the depth of the wound he had dealt you. I will not compel you to remain another instant in the same room with him, for I know it to be painful to you. Go, my love, and trust your uncle to care for your interests!"
He opened the door for her, and after another of her wide, innocent looks at the Duke, she dropped a curtsy, and withdrew.
Mr Liversedge shut the door upon her, and turned to find the Duke standing still rooted to the spot, and lost in astonishment. He said: "Ah, Mr Ware, I perceive that you are confounded!"
"Yes," said Gilly faintly. "That is -- Good God, sir, what are you about to keep such a lovely creature in this noisome alehouse?"
"No one," said Mr Liversedge, "could regret the unhappy necessity more than I do! Alas, sir, when the pockets are to let, one has little choice of domicile! But I feel it! I assure you that I feel it profoundly! Your solicitude does you honour, Mr Ware, and I trust it will be unnecessary for me to say more in prosecution of --"
"Mr Liversedge," interrupted the Duke, "you ask me to believe that you hold some two or three letters I was mad enough to write to your niece, and for these you are demanding the preposterous sum of five thousand pounds! I may deplore your choice of domicile, but this cannot affect the point of issue between us!"
"Five letters, Mr Ware," sighed Mr Liversedge deprecatingly. "And each of them worth the very moderate price I have set upon them! I daresay your memory may not be quite perfect. And so prettily expressed as your billets are! I will refresh your memory, if you will permit me! Pray be seated, sir! I should not wish you to feel that there was the least deception : five letters, and you recalled but three! Now, if I were not a man of honour, Mr Ware, I might have allowed that to pass! You would have bought them from me, and thought yourself rid of the whole business! And I might then have driven a bargain with you for the remaining two! I know of those who would have done so. Yes, indeed, sir, I assure you there are many such shabby tricksters in the world. But Swithin Liversedge is not to be counted amongst them! Do but take your seat, and you shall see the letters with your own eyes! You may have them for a paltry sum. I will engage myself to give them up to you on receipt of bills for five thousand pounds."
The Duke sat down again at the table, opposite to his host, in a drooping posture that, while it might deceive Liversedge into believing him to be overcome by consternation, enabled him to get his hands under the table-edge undetected. "You have the letters!" he uttered.
"Yes, Mr Ware, yes!" beamed Liversedge. "You shall count them!"
He put his hand into the breast of his coat as he spoke, and as he glanced down, the Duke gripped the ledge of the table, and drove it violently forward. It caught Mr Liversedge unawares, and full in the midriff. He uttered a sound between a grunt and a shout, tried to save himself, and failed. His chair tipped backwards, and he fell, snatching fruitlessly at the red table-cloth. In the same instant, the Duke, releasing the table, whipped the pistol from his pocket, and thumbed back the hammer. "Now, Mr Liversedge!" he said, panting a little, for the table was a heavy one, and had taken all his strength to thrust forward. "Don't move! I am held to be a very fair shot!"
But the command was unnecessary. As he looked down at the portly frame at his feet, he saw that Mr Liversedge was incapable of moving. His head had struck against the iron fender, and not only was a sluggish trickle of blood oozing from his scalp, but he was insensible. Mechanically, the Duke's left hand went to his pistol and grasped the hammer. He pressed the trigger, as Captain Belper had taught him to do, and gently released the hammer, easing it down. Still holding the pistol in his hand, he dropped on his knee beside Liversedge, and slipped his left hand into the breast of his coat. A slim package had been already half drawn from an inner pocket. He pulled it out, and swiftly assured himself that it did indeed contain some half a dozen letters directed in Matthew's hand. It was characteristic of him that before he rose to his feet he slid a hand over Mr Liversedge's heart. It was beating rather faintly, but there was no doubt that its owner still lived. The Duke hauled his inanimate body, not without difficulty, clear of the grate, and rose to his feet. As he did so, the door opened, and he turned swiftly, his pistol at the ready, his thumb on the hammer. But he did not pull it back a second time. Belinda stood on the threshold, looking in wide-eyed surprise at her uncle's prostrate form.
"Oh!" she said. "Is he dead?"
"No," the Duke replied. He crossed the floor to her side, and shut the door. "He will recover : this is only a swoon! What made you hold your peace just now? You know I am not Matthew Ware!"
"Oh, yes!" she replied, smiling at him happily. "You are not at all like Mr Ware! He is much bigger than you, and more handsome too. I like Mr Ware. He said he would give me --"
"Why did you not inform your uncle of his mistake? What made you accept me as you did?"
"Uncle Swithin doesn't like it when I dispute with him," she explained. "He said I was to say just what he told me, and I should have a purple silk gown."
"Oh!" said the Duke, a good deal taken aback.
Genealogical Chart by Warren Mendes.
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