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Copyright © 1970 by Georgette Heyer
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Originally published in the United Kingdom in 1970 by The Bodley Head Ltd.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Heyer, Georgette, 1902-1974. Charity girl / Georgette Heyer.
As far as it was possible for an elderly gentleman suffering from dyspepsia and a particularly violent attack of gout to take pleasure in anything but the alleviation of his various pains the Earl of Wroxton was enjoying himself. He was engaged on the agreeable task of delivering himself of a diatribe on the shortcomings of his heir. To the uninitiated his strictures must have seemed unjust, for Viscount Desford bore the appearance of a son of whom any father must have been proud. In addition to a goodlooking countenance, and a lithe, athletic figure, he had the easy manners which sprang as much from an innate amiability as from his breeding. He had also a considerable store of patience, and a sense of humour which showed itself in the smile which lurked in his eyes, and which was thought by a great many persons to be irresistible. His father was not of their number: when a victim of gout, he thought it exasperating.
The month was July, but the weather was so far from sultry that the Earl had caused a fire to be kindled in his library. On either side of the hearth he and his heir were seated, the Earl with one heavily bandaged foot on a stool, and his heir (having discreetly edged his chair away from the warmth of the smould ering logs) at his graceful ease opposite him. The Viscount was wearing the coat, the buckskin breeches, and the topboots which were the correct morning-attire for any gentleman sojourning in the country, but a certain elegance, deriving from the cut of his coat, and the arrangement of his neckcloth, gave his father an excuse for apostrophizing him as a damned dandy. To which he responded, in mild protest: 'No, no, sir! The dandy-set would be shocked to hear you say so!'
'I collect,' said his father, glaring at him, 'that you call yourself a Corinthian!'
'To own the truth, sir,' said the Viscount apologetically, 'I don't call myself anything!' He waited for a moment, watching with as much sympathy as amusement the champing of his parent's jaws, and then said coaxingly: 'Now, come, Papa! What have I done to earn such a trimming from you?'
'What have you done to earn praise from me?' instantly countered the Earl. 'Nothing! You're a skitterbrain, sir! A slibberslabber here-and-thereian, with no more thought for what you owe your name than some rubbishing commoner! A damned scattergood – and you've no need to remind me that you're not dependent on
for the money you waste on your horses, and your betting, and your bits of muslin, for I'm well aware of it, and what I said at the time, and say now, and always shall say is that it was just like your greataunt to leave her fortune to you, and exactly what might have been expected of such a shuttlehead as she was! As well have handed you a carte blanche to commit every sort of – of extravagant folly! But on that head,' said his lordship inaccurately, but with perfect sincerity, 'I shall say nothing! She was your mother's aunt and
circumstance seals my lips.'
He paused, throwing a challenging glance at his heir, but the Viscount merely said, with becoming meekness : 'Just so, Papa!'
'Had she stipulated that her fortune was to be used for the support of your wife and family I should have thought it a very proper bequest,' announced his lordship, adding, however: 'Not that I was not at that time, and at this present, able and willing to increase your allowance to enable you to meet the added expenses consequent on your entry into the married state.'
He paused again, and the Viscount, feeling that some com ment was expected, said politely that he was much obliged to him.
'Oh, no, you're not!' said his lordship grimly. 'And, what's more, you won't be until you provide me with a grandson, no matter how fast your great-aunt's fortune burns in your pockets! Upon my word, a pretty set of children I have!' he said, suddenly enlarging his scope. 'Not one of you cares a straw for the Family! At my age I might have expected to have had a score of grandchildren to gladden my last years! But have I? No! Not one!'
'In fact you have three,' replied the Viscount disconcertingly. 'Not that it has ever seemed to me that they gladdened you precisely, but I do feel it to be only just to Griselda that her offspring should be mentioned!'
'Girls!' snapped the Earl, sweeping them aside with a contemptuous gesture. 'I take no account of them! Besides, they're Broxbourne brats! What I want is sons, Ashley!
to succeed to our Name, and our Honours, and our Tradition!'
'But scarcely a score of them!' protested the Viscount. 'One must be reasonable, sir, and even if I had obliged you by marry ing when I was twenty, and my unfortunate wife had presented me with twins every year, you must still have been at least two short of your expectation – setting aside the probability that there would have been several girls amongst such a bevy of grandchildren.'
This attempt to win his parent out of his ill-humour might have succeeded (for the Earl was fond of the ridiculous) had not a sudden twinge in his afflicted foot caused him to wince, and to utter in a menacing voice: 'Don't be impertinent, sir! I would remind you that you – I thank God! – are not my only son!'
'No,' agreed the Viscount, with unruffled cordiality. 'And while I can't but feel that Simon is too young to be setting up his nursery I have great hopes that Horace may oblige you – when the Occupation ends, as, from all accounts, it will do in the not too far distant future – and he returns to us.'
'Horace!' uttered his lordship. 'I may think myself fortunate if he doesn't come home with some French hussy on his arm!'
'Oh, I don't think that very likely!' said the Viscount. 'He is not at all partial to foreigners, sir, and quite as mindful of what is due to the Family as you are.'
'I shan't be alive to see it,' said the Earl, seeking refuge in decrepitude, but slightly damaging his effect by adding an acrimonious rider: 'Much any of you will care!'
The Viscount laughed, but with a good deal of affection. 'No, no, Papa!' he said. 'Don't try to pitch the fork to me! I haven't been on the town for nine years – and intimately acquainted with you for
twenty-nine years! – without learnin
g when a man is trying to come crab over me! Good God, sir, you're all skin and whipcord – saving only a tendency to gout, which you may easily overcome by
not drinking the best par
t of two bottles of port at a sitting – and you'll hold for a long trig! Long enough, I've little doubt, to rake down a son of mine as you're raking me down today!'
The Earl could not help being gratified to know that his heir considered him to be in very good condition, but he thought it proper to say austerely that he neither understood nor approved of the cant expressions so deplorably in use amongst the young men of the day. He toyed for a moment with the impulse to inform the Viscount, in forthright terms, that when he desired his opinion of his drinking habits he would ask him for it, but discarded this notion, because he knew that no dependence could be placed on Ashley's receiving a snub in filial silence, and he had no wish to embark on an argument in which he stood on very unreliable ground. Instead, he said: 'A son of yours? I want no base-born brats, I thank you, Desford – though I daresay you have a score – any number of them!' he amended hastily.
'Not to my knowledge, sir,' said the Viscount.
'I'm glad to hear it! But if you had agreed to the marriage I planned for you a son of yours might have been sitting on my knee at this moment!'
'I hesitate to contradict you, sir, but I find myself quite unable to believe that any grandchild attempting – at this moment – to sit on your knee would have met with anything but a severe rebuff.'
The Earl acknowledged this hit by giving a bark of laughter, but said: 'Oh, well, there's no need for you to take me up so literally! The thing is that you behaved very badly when you refused to make Henrietta Silverdale an offer! Never did I think to meet with such ingratitude, Desford! Anyone would have supposed that I had chosen a bride for you whom you disliked, or with whom you were unacquainted – which, I may tell you, was not an uncommon thing to happen in
Instead of that, I chose for you a girl with whom you had been closely acquainted all your life, and to whom I believed you to be sin cerely attached. I might have looked much higher, but all I desired was your happiness! And what has been my reward? Tell me that!'
'Oh, for God's sake, sir!' exclaimed the Viscount, for the first time showing impatience. 'Must you hark back to what happened nine years ago? Can't you believe that Hetta had no more wish to marry me than I had to marry her?'
'No – and if you mean to tell me you were not attached to her you may as well spare your breath!'
'Of course I was attached to her – as though she had been my sister! I still am: we are the best of good friends, but a man don't wish to marry his sister, however fond he may be of her! The truth of the matter is, Papa, that you and Sir John hatched the scheme between you – though how the pair of you could be such gudgeons as to suppose that to rear us almost as though we
had been brother and sister would furthe
r this precious scheme is something that has me in a puzzle to this day! No, no, don't rattle me off for calling you a gudgeon! Recollect that I did say it has me in a puzzle!'
'Ay, you've a soft tongue, and think to turn me up sweet with it!' growled his father.
'Alas, I know well I can't!' said the Viscount ruefully. 'But I wish you will tell me, sir, why you, who didn't become riveted until you were past thirty, were so determined to see me leg-shackled before I had even attained my majority?'
'To keep you out of mischief !' replied the Earl, with more promptitude than wisdom.
'Oho!' said the Viscount, quizzing him wickedly. 'So that was it, was it? Well, I've long suspected that you were not – in your day – such a pattern of rectitude as you would have us believe!'
'Pattern of rectitude! Of course I was no such thing!' said the Earl, repulsing the suggestion with loathing.
'Of course you weren't!' said the Viscount, laughing at him.
'No! I sowed my wild oats just as any youngster must, but I never consorted with rake-shames!'
This announcement put a quick end to the Viscount's laughter. He directed a searching look at his father from under suddenly frowning brows, and demanded: 'What's this? If it is to my address, you'll permit me to tell you that you've been misin formed, sir!'
'No, no!' replied his lordship testily. 'I'm talking of Simon, muttonhead!'
'Simon! Why, what the devil has he been doing to provoke you?'
'Don't tell me you aren't very well aware that he's for ever on the spree with a set of rascally scrubs, knocking up disgraceful larks, committing every sort of extravagant folly, creating riot and rumpus – '