or The Wicked Uncle

by Georgette Heyer

But when they reached the Roehampton Gate he was agreeably surprised to find his sister-in-law already there, and was beginning to feel quite in charity with her when he suddenly perceived that the sprig of fashion with her was not her brother but Sir Nugent Fotherby. He stiffened, the expression of easy good-humour on his face changing in a flash to one of haughty astonishment. Phoebe, obliged to repress a strong desire to tell him precisely what she thought of such odious self-consequence, could only be sorry for Sir Nugent.

Her pity was wasted. Sir Nugent knew that Sylvester did not like him, but it never crossed his mind that Sylvester, or anyone else, held him in contempt. If he could have been brought to believe it, he would have known that Sylvester was queer in his attic, and he would have been very much shocked. When Sylvester raised his quizzing-glass he was not at all unnerved, because it was plain that Sylvester was studying the exquisite folds of his neck-cloth. He was not surprised; he would have been disappointed if what had cost him so much time and skill to arrange had attracted no attention. It was not everyone who could tie an Oriental: he was pretty sure Sylvester couldn't; and if Sylvester were to ask him how it was done he would be obliged to tell him that it took years to learn the art, and often several hours of concentrated effort to achieve a respectable result when one had learnt it. Other men might envy Sir Nugent; they could not despise him, for his pedigree was impeccable, his fortune exceeded sixty thousand pounds a year, and he had it on the authority of those boon-companions whom Lord Marlow rudely stigmatized as barnacles that, just as in all matters of fashion he was the finest Pink of the Ton, in the world of sport he figured as a Nonpareil, a regular Top-of-the-Trees, a Sure Card, up to all kinds of slums, never to be beaten on any suit.

His imperviousness to insult saved the day's pleasure from wreck. He seized the earliest opportunity that offered of edging his showy chestnut alongside Sylvester's hack for the purpose of drawing his attention to the circumstance of his having, as he phrased it, brought Lady Henry bang up to the mark on time.

"You are to be congratulated," said Sylvester, in a discouraging tone.

"Devilish good of you to say so, Duke!" responded Sir Nugent, acknowledging the tribute with a slight bow. "Don't mind owning it wasn't easy. Took a devilish deal of address. If there is a thing I pride myself on it's that. `Lady Henry,' I said - well, not to cut a wheedle with you, Duke, I put it a devilish sight stronger than that! `My love,' I said, `we shan't turn his grace up sweet if we keep him kicking his heels at the rendezvous. Take my word for it!' She did."

In spite of himself Sylvester's face relaxed. "She did?"

"She did," asseverated Sir Nugent gravely. "`My sweet life,' I said - you've no objection to that, Duke?"

"Not the least in the world."

"You haven't?" exclaimed Sir Nugent, slewing his body round to stare at Sylvester, an exertion which the stiff points of his collar and the height of that Oriental Tie made necessary.

"Why should I?"

"You've put your finger on the nub, Duke!" said Sir Nugent. "Why should you? I can't tell, and I believe I've cut my wisdoms. `My love,' I said (if you've no objection) `you've got a maggot in your Idea-pot.'"

"And what had she to say to that?" enquired Sylvester, conscious of a wish that Phoebe had not cantered ahead.

"She denied it," said Sir Nugent. "Said you were bent on throwing a rub in our way."


"Just what I said myself! `Oh!' I said."

"Not `my love'?"

"Not then. Because I was surprised. You might say I was betwattled."

"Like a duck in a thunderstorm."

"No," said Sir Nugent, giving this his consideration. "I fancy, Duke, that if you were to ask all round the ton if Nugent Fotherby had ever looked like any species of fowl in such a situation the answer would be, in a word, No!"

"Well, I haven't the least desire to throw a rub in the way of your marriage to my sister-in-law. You may marry her with my good-will, but you will not prevail upon me to relinquish my nephew into your care."

"But that's another nub!" objected Sir Nugent. "You may say it's the primest nub of all! Her la'ship won't give him up!"

"A man of your address must surely be able to persuade her to do so."

"Well, that's what I thought myself," said Sir Nugent. "Queer creatures, females! Devilish attached to the infantry. Let us discuss the matter!"

"No. Let us do no such thing!" interrupted Sylvester. "Talking to me will pay no toll. I have only this to say: I have neither the power nor desire to scotch your marriage to Ianthe, but there is no argument you can advance that will induce me to delegate the least part of my authority over Edmund to you or to anyone! Try if you can twist Ianthe round your thumb: don't waste your time on me!"

He spurred his horse forward as he spoke, and cantered on to overtake the rest of the party.

Phoebe, meanwhile, after enjoying an all too brief gallop, had been forced to pull up, and to continue at a walking-pace beside Ianthe, who wanted to talk about herself, and had found Georgiana an unresponsive audience. She disclosed that she had brought Sir Nugent in place of her brother because she was convinced that Sylvester's dislike of him arose from mere prejudice. He was barely acquainted with Sir Nugent: did not Phoebe think that if he were given the opportunity to getting to know him better he might well reconsider his cruel decision to part a mother from her child?

Phoebe found it impossible to answer this question, since a flat negative was clearly ineligible. Fortunately Ianthe was more interested in her own opinion than in Phoebe's, and had posed the question in a rhetorical spirit. Without waiting for an answer, she continued: "For my part, I am persuaded that Sylvester must be agreeably surprised in him. I don't mean to say that his understanding is superior, for it is not - in fact, he has a great deal less than commonsense, and is sometimes quite addle-brained - but if I don't care for that I'm sure I don't know why Sylvester should! His disposition is amiable, and his manners excessively polished and civil. He is a man of rank, and of the first stare of fashion; and if he does associate with inferior persons, and fritter a fortune away in gaming-halls, that will cease when he is married. And as for his racehorses, he is so wealthy that losses on the Turf can't signify. In any event, it is nonsensical to suppose that it would do Edmund the least harm. Besides, even Sylvester must own that there can be no one better able to teach Edmund just how he should go on in all matters of taste and ton! He is always in the high kick of fashion, and makes the other men appear positively shabby! You have only to look at him!"

Phoebe looked instead at her, and in wonder. Beside Sylvester's quiet elegance and Major Newbury's military cut she had been thinking that Sir Nugent presented all the appearance of a coxcomb. He was a tall man, rather willowy in build, by no means unhandsome, but so tightly laced-in at the waist, so exaggeratedly padded at the shoulders, that he looked a little ridiculous. From the striking hat set rakishly on his Corinthian crop (he had already divulged that it was the New Dash, and the latest hit of fashion) to his gleaming boots, everything he wore seemed to have been chosen for the purpose of making him conspicuous. His extravagantly cut coat was embellished with very large and bright buttons; a glimpse of exotic colour hinted at a splendid waistcoat beneath it; his breeches were of white corduroy; a diamond pin was stuck in the folds of his preposterous neckcloth; and he wore so many rings on his fingers, and so many fobs and seals dangling at his waist, that he might have been taken for a jeweller advertising his wares.

Phoebe was not obliged to make any comment on Ianthe's last observation, for Sylvester overtook them just then, and a minute later Sir Nugent ranged alongside, trying to convey to Ianthe by a series of shrugs and grimaces, which nearly overset Phoebe's gravity, that his mission had not prospered.

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