The Great Roxhythe

by Georgette Heyer

Christopher went home, thinking hard. Unperceptive he might be, but he was wise enough to see that Harcourt had been more than casually curious about his affairs. He went over the evening in his mind. First the questions concerning the journey to Holland; then the questions concerning my lord's French journeys. Christopher remembered that Lady Frances had talked to him on that subject. She had wanted to know what it was that drew my lord to Paris. Well, he had not known. He still did not know. He guessed that it was some woman, for it was always that. He had not puzzled over the matter at all. It was not unusual for Roxhythe to journey to Paris; no one, save Lady Frances and Harcourt, had thought it unusual. Why should these two strive to draw explanations from him? What did they suspect? Why did they suspect? He resolved to speak to Roxhythe himself. If he had aught to confide, surely my lord would tell it to him.

Christopher went into the library and lighted candles. He found an invitation from Lady Frances to wait on her one day. She chided him for what she termed his neglect. She believed he had tired of her already!

It was a letter such as his mother might have written. Christopher folded it carefully and put it away.

Next day he went to her house, and was admitted into my lady's private parlour. It was a tastefully furnished room, hung in blue and gold to suit my lady's colouring. It looked south on to the gardens.

Frances came to him, wonderfully dressed and coiffed.

"You wicked boy! To think I had to send for you!" She allowed him to kiss her hand. "Confess! You've no excuse?"

"I did not like to plague you too often, Lady Frances!" stammered Christopher.

"What nonsense!" She sat down. "Did you not know that I like young things about me?"

"It is very kind of you" said Christopher. "I love to come."

"That is very well," nodded her ladyship. "But this time I want you for a purpose."

"If there is aught I may do --- "

"Well, there is, but don't make a speech about it, dear boy. I am past the age of such vanities. Reserve them for your sweetheart."

"I have none!"

"Then it is time you had! No matter; you are young yet. Best keep away from such things ..." She sighed. "These are sad times, Chris, and I've led a wicked life! So I know all about it! Unless you find a very nice girl, I shall not allow you a sweetheart!"

"Indeed, I do not want one!"

"Ungrateful boy! But listen! I contemplate a masquerade down at Hatchley, when the warmer weather comes. Of course it must excel all others in brilliance."

"Of course it will if you are there!" answered Christopher.

"Naturally I shall be there. You are not to make me pretty speeches! Well, as I say, it must be a very great success. For I intend to ask His Majesty to grace it with his presence."

"Will he?" asked Christopher, wide-eyed.

"Why, yes! His Majesty has a fondness for me, even though I have mended my ways. He will come. Therefore, Chris, I must have Roxhythe. You see?"

"Is he so needful to your party's success?" smiled Christopher.

"You know he is! No one would dream of entertaining Royalty if they could not be assured of Roxhythe's presence. So I must be assured of it. There's the difficulty. One cannot rely on David. One thinks one is safe until the last minute, when lo, and behold! there is no Roxhythe!"

"He would never serve you so." Christopher shook his head. "You have only to ask him."

"Indeed he would! He has done it before! Oh, la-la! what a state I was in! I vowed I would never forgive the wretch - no, nor receive him either. And then he appeared one day to dinner, and I had not the heart to chide him." She sighed. " 'Tis always the same. You may be never so angry with him when he is absent, but the moment you see him - pouf! The anger is gone! But I deviate, I deviate. My husband tells me that I can never walk straight to my point. Is he not rude? Yes. Well, I must have Roxhythe. That is why I wanted to see you."

"How can I help you?" wondered Christopher.

"Dull boy! For one thing you can see he accepts no other invitation for that night. Oh yes, that has been known to happen, Chris. Roxhythe accepts all invitations haphazard, and finds that he has as many as six for the same night. So he throws them all away and goes to the one house to which he was not invited. Now don't laugh! It's very serious. Do you give me your word you will prevent this happening?"

"I promise it shall not happen!" chuckled Christopher. "But what am I to do if your invitation comes not first?"

"Oh, you must destroy the first in that case!" said her ladyship airily. "He will never remember. Not that he would care a fig for't an he did. The other thing that you must do, Chris, is to see that he does not go to Paris or what not on the day. You must make him come to me. C'est entendu?"

"I'll try," promised Christopher. "But one does not `make' my lord do anything."

"He'll do what you ask, never fear! I really believe he hath some sort of an affection for you."

Christopher flushed.

"Some sort ...?" he interrogated.

Lady Frances looked at him for a moment. Her bright eyes softened.

"Chris, dear, don't love Roxhythe too greatly," she said. The laughter had gone from her voice.

Christopher's thoughts leapt back two years. He saw himself walking with de Staal in Rotterdam, and heard de Staal's warning:

"You will love heem ver' mooch one day, only - I warn you - do not love heem too mooch for he is Roxhyt'e, and he not care for anyone byt heemself and hees Prince ..."

"Lady Frances, why do you say that?" he asked quickly. "Why should I not love my lord?"

Lady Frances stared down at her rings.

"I like you, Chris. I - don't want you to - get hurt."

" One day, per'haps, he hurt you ver' mooch, eef you not take care. So I warn you ..."

"Please tell me why you say that!" begged Christopher. "Why should he hurt me? What reason have you for misjudging him so?"

"I can't tell you Chris. I do not know. But Roxhythe - is Roxhythe, and I think one day you will be disappointed. You think him so great, very good; suppose it were not so? Suppose he were not so true?"

"It is impossible! When have you found him untrue? What right have you to warn me against him?"

She laid an impulsive hand on his arm.

"None - none! Indeed it may be impossible! But - oh, he would never return your regard! He cares for no one save himself! I don't want you to think him perfect - to reverence him so greatly! I don't want you to be so much under his influence!"

Christopher's eyes were flashing.

"Perhaps you would advise me to quit his service, Lady Frances? It would not be the first time I have received such advice!"

"I fear it were useless," she said. "I only beg you not to trust in him too much. He is utterly, utterly selfish."

"He loves his King - his Country!"

"Don't let us speak of it any more! You are greatly offended with me, I know! But - remember, Chris!"

The angry look died out of his eyes.

"Forgive me if I have been rude, Lady Frances! I did not mean to be, but I cannot bear to hear ill of my lord! Because he is indolent, and does not interest himself in affairs, people dub him untrustworthy. It is unjust! Even you think it impossible that a man should be above suspicion! I - well let us talk of something else!" His boyish smile peeped out.

Lady Frances nodded.

"What we really want to discuss is how to bring him to my masquerade," she said. "Only I deviated again."

"I'll send him to you," promised Christopher. "I think he will be only too honoured."

"Pho!" My lady snapped her fingers. "So much for that! And you are very kind to bring him. Of course I am inviting you."

"How - how very kind you are!" exclaimed Christopher. "Thank you very much, but do you think you want me?"

"I had not asked you otherwise. Now, listen, Chris! I have decided that masquerade had best be in June, so unless I change my mind, June it will be. I shall not send out the invitations for some time yet, but you may tell Roxhythe. Tell him, too, that the success of my party depends on his being present. 'Twill flatter his vanity."

"I will. I'll tell him as soon as he comes home." The words were hardly out of his mouth before he had regretted them.

Lady Frances looked up sharply.

"Home? Where then is he?"

"I think - in Paris," said Christopher uncomfortably.

"Again! Then ---" she stopped. "Yes. He is very much in love with Madame, is he not?"

"I - I believe so!" said Christopher, who was sick of the sound of the Duchesse d'Orléans' sobriquet. He prepared to make good his escape.

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