by Georgette Heyer
Someone was climbing out of a second-storey window of one of the prim houses on the opposite side of the street. Sir Richard stood still, and blinked at this unexpected sight. His divine detachment still clung to him; he was interested in what he saw, but by no means concerned with it. "Undoubtedly a burglar," he said, and leaned nonchalantly on his cane to watch the end of the adventure. His somewhat sleepy gaze discovered that whoever was escaping from the prim house was proposing to do so by means of a knotted sheets, which fell disastrously short of the ground. "Not a burglar," decided Sir Richard, and crossed the road.
By the time he had reached the opposite kerbstone, the mysterious fugitive had arrived, somewhat fortuitously, at the end of his improvised rope, and was dangling precariously above the shallow area, trying with one desperate foot to find some kind of resting-place on the wall of the house. Sir Richard saw that he was a very slight youth, only a boy, in fact, and went in a leisurely fashion to the rescue.
The fugitive caught sight of him as he descended the area-steps, and gasped with a mixture of fright and thankfulness: "Oh! Could you help me, please? I didn't know it was so far. I thought I should be able to jump, only I don't think I can."
"My engaging youth," said Sir Richard, looking up at the flushed face peering down at him. "What, may I ask, are you doing at the end of that rope?"
"Hush!" begged the fugitive. "Do you think that you could catch me, if I let go?"
"I will do my poor best," promised Sir Richard.
The fugitive's feet were only just above his reach, and in another five seconds the fugitive descended into his arms with a rush that made him stagger, and almost lose his balance. He retained it by a miracle, clasping strongly to his chest an unexpectedly light body.
Sir Richard was not precisely sober, but although the brandy fumes had produced in his brain a not unpleasant sense of irresponsibility, they had by no means fuddled his intellect. Sir Richard, his chin tickled by curls, and his arms full of fugitive, made a surprising discovery. He set the fugitive down, saying in a matter-of-fact voice: "Yes, but I don't think you are a youth, after all!"
"No, I'm a girl," replied the fugitive, apparently undismayed by his discovery. "But, please, will you come away before they wake up?"
"Who?" asked Sir Richard.
"My aunt - all of them," whispered the fugitive. "I am very much obliged to you for helping me - and do you think you could untie this knot, if you please? You see, I had to tie my bundle on my back, and now I can't undo it. And where is my hat?"
"It fell off," said Sir Richard, picking it up, and dusting it on his sleeve. "I am not quite sober, you know - in fact, I am drunk - but I cannot help feeling that this is all a trifle - shall we say - irregular?"
"Yes, but there was nothing else to be done," explained the fugitive, trying to look over her own shoulder at what Sir Richard was doing with the recalcitrant knot.
"Oblige me by standing still!" requested Sir Richard.
"Oh, I am sorry! I can't think how it worked right round me like that. Thank you! I am truly grateful to you!"
Sir Richard was eyeing the bundle through his quizzing-glass. "Are you a burglar?" he enquired.
A chuckle, hastily choked, greeted this. "No, of course, I'm not. I couldn't manage a bandbox, so I had to tie all my things up in a shawl. And now I think I must be going, if you please."
"Drunk I undoubtedly am," said Sir Richard, "but some remnants of sanity still remain with me. You cannot, my good child, wander about the streets of London at this hour of night, and dressed in those clothes. I believe I ought to ring that bell, and hand you over to your - aunt, did you say?"
Two agitated hands clasped his arm. "Oh, don't!" begged the fugitive. "Please don't!"
"Well, what am I to do with you?" asked Sir Richard.
"Nothing. Only tell me the way to Holborn!"
"I have to go to the White Horse Inn, to catch the stagecoach for Bristol."
"That settles it," said Sir Richard. "I will not set you a foot on your way until I have the whole story from you. It's my belief you are a dangerous criminal."
"I am not!" said the fugitive indignantly. "Anyone with the veriest speck of sensibility would feel for my plight! I am escaping from the most odious persecution."
"Fortunate child!" said Sir Richard, taking her bundle from her. "I wish I might do the same. Let us remove from this neighbourhood. I have seldom seen a street that depressed me more. I can't think how I came here. Do you feel that our agreeable encounter would be improved by an exchange of names, or are you travelling incognita?"
"Yes, I shall have to make up a name for myself. I hadn't thought of that. My real name is Penelope Creed. Who are you?"
"I," said Sir Richard, "am Richard Wyndham, wholly at your service."
"Beau Wyndham?" asked Miss Creed knowledgeably.
"Beau Wyndham," bowed Sir Richard. "Is it possible that we can have met before?"
"Oh no, but of course I have heard of you. My cousin tries to tie his cravat in a Wyndham Fall. At least, that is what he says it is, but it looks like a muddle to me."
"Then it is not a Wyndham Fall," said Sir Richard firmly.
"No, that's what I thought. My cousin tries to be a dandy, but he has a face like a fish. They want me to marry him."
"What a horrible thought!" said Sir Richard, shuddering.
"I told you you would feel for my plight!" said Miss Creed. "So would you now set me on my way to Holborn?"
"No," replied Sir Richard.
"But you must!" declared Miss Creed, on a note of panic. "Where are we going?"
"I cannot walk about the streets all night. We had better repair to my house to discuss this matter."
"No!" said Miss Creed, standing stock-still in the middle of the pavement.
Sir Richard sighed. "Rid yourself of the notion that I cherish any villainous designs upon your person," he said. "I imagine I might well be your father. How old are you?"
"I am turned seventeen."
"Well, I am nearly thirty," said Sir Richard.
Miss Creed worked this out. "You couldn't possibly be my father!"
"I am far too drunk to solve arithmetical problems. Let it suffice that I have not the slightest intention of making love to you."
"Well, then, I don't mind accompanying you," said Miss Creed handsomely. "Are you really drunk?"
"Vilely," said Sir Richard.
"No one would credit it, I assure you. You carry your wine very well."
"You speak as one with experience in these matters," said Sir Richard.
"My father was used to say that it was important to see how a man behaved when in his cups. My cousin becomes excessively silly."
"You know," said Sir Richard, knitting his brows, "the more I hear of this cousin of yours the more I feel you should not be allowed to marry him. Where are we now?"
"Piccadilly, I think," replied Miss Creed.
"Good! I live in St. James's Square. Why do they want you to marry your cousin?"
"Because," said Miss Creed mournfully, "I am cursed with a large fortune!"
Sir Richard halted in the middle of the road. "Cursed with a large fortune?" he repeated.
"Yes, indeed. You see, my father had no other children, and I believe I am most fabulously wealthy, besides having a house in Somerset, which they won't let me live in. When he died I had to live with Aunt Almeria. I was only twelve years old, you see. And now she is persecuting me to marry my cousin Frederick. So I ran away."
"The man with a face like a fish?"
"You did quite right," said Sir Richard.
"Well, I think I did."
"Not a doubt of it. Why Holborn?"
"I told you," replied Miss Creed patiently. "I am going to get on the Bristol coach."
"Oh! Why Bristol?"
"Well, I'm not going to Bristol precisely, but my house is in Somerset, and I have a great friend there. I haven't seen him for nearly five years, but we used to play together, and we pricked out fingers - mixing the blood, you know - and we made a vow to marry one another when we were grown-up."
"This is all very romantic," commented Sir Richard.
"Yes, isn't it?" said Miss Creed enthusiastically. "You are not married, are you?"
"No. Oh, my God!"
"Why, what is the matter?"
"I've just remembered that I am going to be."
"Don't you want to be?"
"But no one could force you to be married!"
"My good girl, you do not know my relatives," said Sir Richard bitterly.
"Did they talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you? And say it was your duty? And plague your life out? And cry at you?" asked Miss Creed.
"Something of the sort," admitted Sir Richard. "Is that what your relative did to you?"
"Yes. So I stole Geoffrey's second-best suit, and climbed out of the window."
"Who is Geoffrey?"
"Oh, he is my other cousin! He is at Harrow, and his clothes fit me perfectly. Is this your house?"
"This is my house."
"But wait!" said Miss Creed. "Will not the porter be sitting up to open the door to you?"
"I don't encourage people to sit up for me," said Sir Richard, producing from his pocket a key, and fitting it into the lock.
"But I expect you have a valet," suggested Miss Creed, hanging back. "He will be waiting to help you to bed."
"True," said Sir Richard. "But he will not come to my room until I ring the bell. You need have no fear."
"Oh, in that case --!" said Miss Creed, relieved, and followed him blithely into the house.
A lamp was burning in the hall, and a candle was placed on a marble-topped table, in readiness for Sir Richard. He kindled it by thrusting it into the lamp, and led his guest into the library. Here there were more candles, in chandeliers fixed to the wall. Sir Richard lit as many of these as seemed good to him, and turned to inspect Miss Creed.
She had taken off her hat, and was standing in the middle of the room, looking interestedly about her. Her hair, which clustered in feathery curls on the top of her head, and was somewhat raggedly cut at the back, was guinea-gold; her eyes were a deep blue, very large and trustful, and apt at any moment to twinkle with merriment. She had a short little nose, slightly freckled, a most decided chin, and a pair of dimples.
Sir Richard, critically observing her, was unimpressed by these charms. He said: "You look the most complete urchin indeed!"
She seemed to take this as a tribute. She raised her candid eyes to his face, and said: "Do I? Truly?"
His gaze travelled slowly over her borrowed raiment. "Horrible!" he said. "Are you under the impression that you have tied that - that travesty of a cravat in a Wyndham Fall?"
"No, but the thing is I have never tied a cravat before," she explained.
"That," said Sir Richard, "is obvious. Come here!"
She approached obediently, and stood still while his expert fingers wrought with the crumpled folds round her neck.
"No, it is beyond even my skill," he said at last. "I shall have to lend you one of mine. Never mind; sit down, and let us talk this matter over. My recollection is none of the clearest, but I fancy you said you were going into Somerset to marry a friend of your childhood."
"Yes, Piers Luttrell," nodded Miss Creed, seating herself in a large arm-chair.
"Furthermore, you are just seventeen."
"Turned seventeen," she corrected.
"Don't quibble! And you propose to undertake this journey as a passenger on an Accommodation coach?"
"Yes," agreed Mis Creed.
"And, as though this were not enough, you are going alone?"
"Of course I am."
"My dear child," said Sir Richard, "drunk I may be, but not so drunk as to acquiesce in this fantastic scheme, believe me."
"I don't think you are drunk," said Miss Creed. "Besides, it has nothing to do with you! You cannot interfere in my affairs merely because you helped me out of the window."
"I didn't help you out of the window. Something tells me I ought to restore you to the bosom of your family."
Miss Creed turned rather white, and said in a small, but very clear voice: "If you did that it would be the most cruel - the most treacherous thing in the world!"
"I suppose it would," he admitted.
There was a pause. Sir Richard unfobbed his snuff-box with a flick of one practised finger, and took a pinch. Miss Creed swallowed, and said: "If you had ever seen my cousin, you would understand."
He glanced down at her, but said nothing.
"He has a wet mouth," said Miss Creed, despairingly.
"That settles it," said Sir Richard, shutting his snuff-box. "I will escort you to your childhood's friend."
"You? But you can't!"
"Why can't I?"
"Because - because I don't know you, and I can very well go by myself, and - well, it's quite absurd! I see now that you are drunk."
"Let me inform you," said Sir Richard, "that missish airs don't suit your clothes. Moreover, I don't like them. Either you will travel to Somerset in my company, or you will go back to your aunt. Take your choice!"
"Do please consider!" begged Miss Creed. "You know I am obliged to travel in the greatest secrecy. If you went with me, no one would know what had become of you."
"No one would know what had become of me," repeated
slowly. "No one - my girl, you have no longer any choice; I am
going with you to Somerset!"