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December 01, 2009
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Excerpt from Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer
Chapter One: A Lady in Distress
It had begun to rain an hour ago, a fine driving mist with the sky grey above. The gentleman riding beside the chaise surveyed the clouds placidly. "Faith, it"s a wonderful climate," he remarked of no one in particular.
The grizzled serving man who rode some paces to the rear spurred up to him. "Best put up for the night, sir," he grunted. "There"s an inn a mile or two on."
The window of the chaise was let down with a clatter, and a lady looked out. "Child, you"ll be wet," she said to her cavalier. "How far to Norman Cross?"
The serving man rode up close to the chaise. "Another hour, ma"am. I"m saying we"d best put up for the night." "I"d as soon make Norman Cross," said the gentleman, "for all it"s plaguily damp."
"There"s an inn close by, as I remember," the servant repeated, addressing himself to the lady.
"En avant, then. Produce me the inn," the lady said. "Give you joy of your England, Peter my little man."
The gentleman laughed. "Oh, it"s a comforting spot, Kate."
The inn came soon into sight, a square white house glimmering through the dusk. There were lights in the windows, and a post--chaise drawn up in the court before it.
The gentleman came lightly down from the saddle. He was of medium height, and carried himself well. He had a neat leg encased in a fine riding boot, and a slender hand in an embroidered gauntlet.
There was straightway a bustle at the inn. An ostler came running; mine host appeared in the porch with a bow and a scrape and a waiting man sped forth to assist in letting down the steps of the chaise.
"Two bedchambers, for myself and my sister," said the gentleman. "Dinner, and a private room."
Consternation was in the landlord"s face. "Bedchambers, sir. Yes - on the instant! Polly, the two best bedchambers, and fires to be lit in them!" A serving maid went scuttling off. "Sir, the private room!" Mine host bowed, and spread a pair of deprecating hands. "But this moment, sir, it was bespoken by a lady and a gentleman travelling north." He looked slyly, and cast down his eyes. "But they stay only for dinner, sir, and if your honour and the lady would condescend to the coffee--room? There"s never a soul likely to come to--night, and "twill be private enough."
There was a rustle of skirts. My lady came down from the chaise with a hand on her servant"s shoulder. "The coffee--room or any other so I get out of this wet!" she cried, and swept into the inn with her cavalier behind her.
They found themselves straight in a comfortable large room. There was a table set, and a wood fire burning in the hearth. A door led out into a passage at the back, where the stairs rose steeply, and another to one side, giving on to the taproom.
A trim girl in a mob cap brought more candles, and dropped a shy curtsey to the lady. "If you please, my lady, should I take your ladyship"s cloak? Your ladyship"s abigail...?"
"Alack, the creature"s not with me!" mourned Madam Kate. "Take the cloak up to my chamber, child. So!" She put back the hood from her head, and untied the strings round her throat. The cloak was given to the maid; Madam stood up in a taffety gown of blue spread over a wide hoop. She wore her fair ringlets en demie toilette, free from powder, with a blue ribbon threaded through, and a couple of curls allowed to fall over her shoulder. The maid thought her a prodigiously lovely lady and bobbed another curtsey before she went away with the cloak.
My lady"s brother gave his three--cornered hat into his servant"s keeping, and struggled out of his greatcoat. He was much of his sister"s height, a little taller perhaps, and like enough to her in appearance. His hair was of a darker brown, confined demurely at the neck by a black riband; and his eyes showed more grey than blue in the candlelight. Young he seemed, for his cheek was innocent of all but the faintest down; but he had a square shoulder, and a good chin, rounded, but purposeful enough. The landlord, following him into the coffee--room, was profuse in apologies and obeisances, for he recognised a member of the Quality. The lady wore a fine silk gown, and Mr Merriot a modish coat of brown velvet, with gold lacing, and a quantity of Mechlin lace at his throat and wrists. A pretty pair, in all, with the easy ways of the Quality, and a humorous look about the eyes that made them much alike. The landlord began to talk of capons and his best burgundy, and was sent off to produce them.
Miss Merriot sat down by the fire, and stretched one foot in its buckled shoe to the blaze. There was a red heel to her shoe, and marvellous embroidered clocks to her silken stockings.
"So!" said Miss Merriot. "How do you, my Peter?"
"I don"t melt in a shower of rain, I believe," Peter said, and sat down on the edge of the table, swinging one booted leg.
"No, faith, child, there"s too much of you for that."
The gentleman"s rich chuckle sounded. "I"m sufficiently substantial, in truth," he remarked. He drew out his gold and enamelled snuff--box from one of his huge coat pockets, and took a pinch with an air, delicately shaking the ruffles of lace back from his wrists. A ruby ring glowed on one of his long fingers, while on the other hand he wore a big gold seal ring. A smile crept up into his eyes, and lurked at the corners of his mouth. "I"d give something to know where the old gentleman is," he said.
"Safe enough, I"ll be bound," Madam answered, and laughed.
"It"s the devil himself, I believe, and will appear in London to snap his fingers under the noses of all King George"s men."
"Fie, Kate: my poor, respected papa!" Mr Merriot was not shocked. He fobbed his snuff--box and put it away. A faint crease showed between his brows. "For all he named London - egad, "tis like his impudence! - it"s odds he"s gone to France."
"I don"t permit myself to hope too much," said Miss Merriot, with a smile at once dreamy and a little impish. "He"ll be there to lead us another of his mad dances. If not...I"ve a mind to try our own fortunes."
"In truth, I"ve a kindness for the old gentleman," said Mr Merriot pensively. "His dances lead somewhere."
"To lost causes." There was a hint of bitterness in the tone.
Mr Merriot looked up. "Ay, you"ve taken it to heart."
"Not I." Kate jerked a shoulder as though to shake something off. "We went into it - egad, why did we go into it?"
"Ask the old gentleman," said Mr Merriot, the slow smile creeping up again. "He had a loyal fervour, belike."
Kate drew down the corners of her mouth. "It"s a pleasing image. He meant it for a beau geste, I dare swear. And we? Well, I suppose we went willy nilly into the net."
"I don"t regret it. The old gentleman meddled in Saxe"s affairs, but we came out of that net."