Pistols For Two
by Georgette Heyer
To have the honour
She was just saying, though disconsolately, that she supposed it was quite a pretty dress, when the Viscount came into the room, and, still holding the door, said: "The latest fashions? Am I very much in the way, or may I have a word with you, cousin?"
The colour flooded Henrietta's cheeks; she stammered: "Oh no! I mean, to be sure you may, Alan!"
Miss Allerton, unwontedly meek, obeyed the command contained in the jerk of his lordship's head, and tripped out of the room. The Viscount shut the door, and turned to look across the saloon at his cousin. Her colour rose higher still, and she pretended to search for something in the litter of objects on the table.
"Henry . . ." the Viscount said.
She looked up at that, a little shy smile on her lips. "Oh, Alan, no one has called me that since you went away! How nice it sounds!"
He returned the smile, although with an effort. "Does it? You will always be Henry to me, you know." He paused; and then said with a good deal of constraint: "I have been with my mother and with Thimbleby for the past hour. What I have learnt from them has made me feel that I must speak to you immediately."
"Oh - oh, yes?" said Henrietta.
"Yes. I think I was never more shocked in my life than when I realised --" He broke off, conscious of the awkwardness of his situation. His own colour rose; he said with a rueful laugh: "The devil! I'm as tongue-tied as a schoolboy! Henry, I only wanted to say - I'm not going to offer for you!"
The flush in Henrietta's cheeks began to ebb. "Oh!" she said. "N-not going to offer for me?"
He came towards her, and took her hands, giving them a reassuring squeeze. "Of course I am not! How could you think I would do so, you foolish Henry? You have been made to believe that you were in some way promised to me, haven't you? Some absurd talk of what your father desired - of what you owed to my family. Well, you owe us nothing, my dearest cousin! It is rather we who owe you a great debt. You have been our - most beloved sister - ever since you came to live with us. I am ashamed that it should ever have been suggested to you that it is your duty to marry me: it is no such thing! You are free to marry whom you please."
This did not, at the moment, appear likely to the heiress. She disengaged her hands. "Am - am I?"
"Indeed you are!" With an attempt at lightness, he added: "Unless you choose someone quite ineligible! I warn you, I should do what I could to prevent that, Henry!"
She managed to smile. "I should be obliged to elope, then, should I not? I - I am glad you have been so frank with me. Now we can be comfortable again!"
"My poor girl!" he said quickly. "If only you had told me what was in the wind --! There was never a hint in any of your letters. I would have set your mind at rest months ago! No: you could not, of course!"
She turned away, and began to tidy the litter on the table. She said, in a voice that did not sound like her own: "I own, I had as lief not be married for my fortune!"
"Papa," said Miss Massingham, "is persuaded you would have not the least objection, or you may be sure I should not have ventured to ask you, dear Charles, for perhaps you might not quite wish to oblige him in this way."
She paused, and glanced doubtfully up at dear Charles. It could not have been said that his handsome countenance bore the expression of one delighted to oblige his Mama's old friend, but he bowed politely. Miss Massingham reminded herself that this elegant gentleman, with his great shoulders setting off a coat of blue superfine, and his shapely leg encased in a skin-tight pantaloon and a Hessian boot of dazzling gloss, was the bouncing baby on whom, thirty years before, she had bestowed a coral rattle. She said archly: "You are grown so grand that I declare I stand quite in awe of you!"
The expression of boredom on Sir Charles Wainfleet's countenance became more pronounced.
"I am sure a most notable dandy!" said Miss Massingham, hopeful of giving pleasure.
"Believe me, ma'am, you flatter me!"
The third person present here came, as her duty was, to his rescue. "No, Louisa!" she said. "Not a dandy! They only care for their clothes, and Charles cares for a great deal besides, such as prize-fighting, and cocking, and all the horridest things! He is a Corinthian!"
"Thank you, Mama, but shall we leave this subject, and discover instead just what it is that the General feels I shall have not the least objection to doing?"
Encouraged by this speech, Miss Massingham plunged into a tangle of words. "It is so very obliging of you! The notion came into Papa's head when I mentioned the circumstance of your Mama's going to Bath next week, and that you mean to escort her! `Well, then,' he said, `if that is so, Charles may bring Anne home!' I instantly demurred, but `Balderdash!' exclaimed Papa - you know his soldierly way! - `If he fancies himself to have become too great a man to escort my granddaughter home from school, let him come and tell me so!' Which, however, I do beg you will not do, Charles, for Papa's gout has been very troublesome lately!"
"Have no fear, ma'am! I should not dare!" said Sir Charles, his weary boredom suddenly dissipated by a smile of singular charm.
It was nearly an hour later, when the revelry was becoming a trifle indecorous, that he suddenly saw Letty. She had her hood drawn over her head, but he caught a glimpse of dusky curls, and recognized her little trim figure. She was waltzing with a large man in a purple domino, and the only circumstance which afforded her brother some slight degree of satisfaction was her obvious lack of pleasure in the exercise. Leaning his broad shoulders against one of the decorated pillars, and folding his arms across his chest, he watched her circle round the room, and very soon realized that her partner (whom he suspected of being slightly foxed) was subjecting her to a form of gallantry which was extremely unwelcome. He thought it would be a salutary lesson to her, and had almost made up his mind not to intervene for a little while, when she suddenly broke away from her partner, and hurried off the floor, hotly pursued. Mr Wrexham, shouldering his way through the loungers at the side of the hall, reached her just as Purple Domino caught her round the waist, saying with a laugh: "You shan't escape me thus, pretty prude!"
Mr Wrexham, setting a hand on his shoulder, swung him aside. A glance at his sister showed him that she was shaking like a leaf; he was afraid that she might be going to faint, and pushed her into the alcove behind her, saying briefly: "Sit down!"
At the sound of his voice she jumped under his hand, and gave a gasp.
"Yes, my girl, it is I!" said Mr Wrexham very dryly indeed, and turned to confront Purple Domino.
In a voice which bore out Mr Wrexham's previous estimate of his condition, Purple Domino demanded to know what the devil he meant by it.
"I mean," said Mr Wrexham, "that unless you remove yourself within one minute, my fine buck, I shall have the greatest pleasure in supplying you with a little of the home-brewed!"
Purple Domino recoiled instinctively, but recovered, and said in a blustering tone: "Damme, what right have you to spoil sport?"
"Let me inform you," said Mr Wrexham, "that I am this lady's brother!"
"B-brother?" echoed Purple Domino, in a dazed voice. "But I didn't -- Curse you, how was I to know?"
He stood staring through the slits of his mask for a moment, in an undecided way, and then, muttering something indistinguishable, took himself off.
Mr Wrexham felt a hand touch his sleeve. He drew it through his arm. It was trembling so much that instead of uttering the blistering words hovering on his tongue, he merely said: "You see, Letty, I am not quite so gothic as you think me. Come, I am going to take you home now, and we will forget this military suitor of yours!"
She did not answer, but went meekly with him to the entrance-hall. It was deserted, save for the porter. Mr Wrexham said: "I sent the carriage home, so I must procure a hack. Go and put on your cloak! There is no need to be in a quake: I am not an ogre!"
"No," said the Pink Domino, in a shaken voice. "But I - I am not your sister, sir!"