A lady, not so tall as he had expected to see, was standing with her back to the door, apparently inspecting an oil painting that hung on the far wall. She turned quickly as he came in, and showed him a face that certainly did not belong to Miss Winwood. He checked for a moment, looking down at her in surprise.And as he has already decided that her would very much like to be married to her too, it is not long before they are united.
The face under the simple straw hat also showed surprise. "Are you L-Lord Rule?" demanded the lady.
He was amused. "I have always believed so," he replied.
"Why, I th-thought you were quite old!" she informed him ingenuously.
"That," said his lordship with perfect gravity, "was unkind in you. Did you come to see me in order to - er - satisfy yourself as to my appearance?"
She blushed fierily. "P-please forgive m-me!" she begged, stammering dreadfully. "It w-was very r-rude of m-me, only you s-see I was surprised just for the m-moment."
"If you were surprised, ma'am, what can I be but deeply flattered?" said the Earl. "But if you did not come to look me over, do you think you could tell me what it is I am to have the honour of doing for you?"
The bright eyes looked resolutely into his. "Of c-course, you don't know who I am," said the visitor. "I'm afraid I d-deceived you a little. I was afraid if you knew it was not L-Lizzie you might not receive me. But it was not quite a lie to say I was Miss W-Winwood," she added anxiously."B-because I am, you know. "I'm Horry Winwood."
"Horry?" he repeated.
"Horatia," she explained. "It is an odious name, isn't it? I was given it on account of Mr W-Walpole. He is my godfather, you understand."
"Perfectly," bowed hid lordship. "You must forgive me for being so dull-witted, but would you believe it? - I am still quite in the dark."
Horatia's gaze faltered. "It is - it is very difficult to explain it to you," she said. "And I expect you are horridly shocked. But I did being my m-maid, sir."
"That makes it far less shocking," said his lordship reassuringly. "But would it not be much easier to explain this very difficult matter to me if you sit down? Will you let me take your cloak?"
"Th-thank you," said Horatia, relinquishing it. She bestowed a friendly smile upon her host. "It is not anything n-near so difficult as I thought it would be. Before you came in my spirits quite f-failed me. You see, my M-mama has not the smallest n-notion of my being here. But I couldn't think of anything else to do." She gripped her hands together, and drew a deep breath. "It is because of L-Lizzie - my sister. You have offered for her, haven't you?"
Slightly taken aback, the Earl bowed. Horatia said in a rush: "C-could you - would you m-mind very much - having m-me instead?"
The Earl was seated in a chair opposite to her, absently swinging his eyeglass, his gaze fixed on her face in an expression of courteous interest. The eyeglass stopped swinging suddenly, and it was allowed to fall. Horatia, looking anxiously across at him, saw a rather startled fron in his eyes, and hurried on: "Of c-course I know it ought to be Charlotte, for she is the elder, but she said nothing would induce her to m-marry you."
His lips quivered. "In that case," he said, "it is fortunate that I did not solicit the honour of Miss Charlotte's hand in marriage."
"Yes," agreed Horatia. "I am sorry to have to say it, but I am afraid Charlotte shrinks from the idea of m-making such a sacrifice, even for L-Lizzie's sake." Rule's shoulders shook slightly. "Have I said s-something I shouldn't?" inquired Horatia doubtfully.
"On the countrary," he replied. "Your conversation is most salutary, Miss Winwood."
"You are laughing at me," said Horatio accusingly. "I d-daresay you think I am very stupid, sir, but indeed, it is most serious."
"I think you are delightful," said Rule. "But there seems to be some misapprehension. I was under the impression that Miss Winwood was - er - willing to receive my addresses."
"Yes," concurred Horatia. "She is w-willing, of course, but it makes her dreadfully unhappy. Th-that's why I came. I hope you don't m-mind."
"Not at all," said his lordship. "But may I know whether I appear to all the members of your family in this disagreeable light?"
"Oh no!" said Horatia earnestly. "M-mama is excessively pleased with you, and I myself d-don't find you disagreeable in the least. And if only you would be so v-very obliging as to offer for me instead of Lizzie I should like you very well."
"But why," asked Rule, "do you want me to offer for you?"
Horatia's brow drew close over the bridge of her nose. "It must sound very odd," she admitted. "You see, Lizzie must m-marry Edward Heron. Perhaps you do not know him?"
"I believe I have not the pleasure," said the Earl.
"W-well, he is a very particular friend of ours, and he loves L-Lizzie. Only you know how it is with younger sons, and poor Edward is not even a Captain yet."
"I am to understand that Mr Heron is in the Army?" inquired the Earl.
"Oh, yes, the T-tenth Foot. And if you had not offered for L-Lizzie I feel sure M-mama would have consented to him being contracted to her."
"It was most lamentable of me," said Rule gravely. "But at least I can remedy the error."
Hiratia said eagerly: "Oh, you will take m-me instead?"
"No," said Rule, with a faint smile. "I won't do that. But I will engage not to marry your sister. It's not necessary to offer me an exchange, my poor child."
"B-but it is!" said Horatia vigorously. "One of us m-must marry you!"
The Earl looked at her for a moment. Then he got up in his leisurely way, and stood leaning on the back of a chair.
"I think you must explain it all to me," he said. "I seem to be more than ordinarily dull this morning."
Horatia knot her brows. "Well, I'll t0try," she said. "You see, we're so shockingly poor. Charlotte says it is all P-Pelham's fault, and I dare say it may be, but it is no use blaming him, b-because he cannot help it. G-gambling, you know. Do you gamble?'
"Sometimes," answered his lordship.
The grey eyes sparkled. "So do I," declared Horatia unexpectedly. "N-not really, of course, but with Pelham. He taught me. Charlotte says it is wrong. She is l-like that, you know, and it makes her very impatient with poor P-Pel. And I m-must say I feel a little impatient myself when Lizzie has to be sacrificed. Mama is sorry too, b-but she says we must all feel d-deeply thankful." She coloured, and said rather gruffly: "It's v-vulgar to care about Settlements, but you are very rich, are you not?"
"Very," said his lordship, preserving his calm.
"Yes," nodded Horatia. "W-well - you see!"
"I see," agreed Rule. "You are going to be the Sacrifice."
She looked up at him rather shyly. "It c-can't signify to you, can it? Except that I know I'm not a Beauty, like L-Lizzie. But I have got the Nose, sir."
Rule surveyed the Nose. "Undoubtedly, you have the Nose," he said.
Horatia seemed determined to make a clean breast of her blemishes. "A-and perhaps you could become used to my eyebrows?" The smile lurked at the back of Rule's eyes. "I think, quite easily."
She said sadly: "They won't arch, you know. And I ought to t-tell you that we have quite given up hope of my g-growing taller."
"It would be a pit if you did," said his lordship.
"D-do you think so?" Horatia was surprised. "It is a great trial to me, I assure you." She took a deep breath, and added, with difficulty: "You m-may have n-noticed that I have a - a stammer."
"Yes, I had noticed," the Earl answered gently.
"If you f-feel you c-can't bear it, sir, I shall quite understand," Horatia said in a small, anxious voice."
"I like it," said the Earl.
"It is very odd of you," marvelled Horatia. "But p-perhaps you said that to p-put me at my ease?"
"No," said the earl. "I said it because it was true. Will you tell me how old you are?"
"D-does it matter?" Horatia inquired forebodingly.
"Yes, I think it does," said his lordship.
"I was afraid it m-might," she said. "I am t-turned seventeen."
"Turned seventeen!" repeated his lordship. "My dear, I couldn't do it."
"I'm too young?"
"Much too young, child."
Horatia swallowed valiantly. "I shall grow older," she ventured. "I d-don't want to p-press you, but I am thought to be quite sensible."
"Do you know how old I am!" asked the Earl.
"N-no, but my cousin, Mrs M-Maulfrey, says you are not a d-day above thirty-five."
"Does not that seem a little old to you?" he suggested.
"Well, it is rather old, perhaps, b-but no one would think you were as much," said Horatia kindly.
At that a laugh escaped him. "Thank you," he bowed. "But I think that thirty-five makes a poor husband for seventeen."
"P-pray do not give that a thought, sir!" said Horatia earnestly. "I assure you, for my p-part I do not regard it at all. In f-fact, I think I should quite like to marry you."
As the passage above reveals, we have a very unusual heroine on our hands. Young and unworldly, she finds herself in all kinds of scraps once her marriage launches her on the town. The minor ones are of her own creation, but the more sinister ones are contrived by Lord Rule's old enemy, Lord Lethbridge, and those who wish to see the marriage fail: Rule's former mistress, Lady Massey, and his heir apparent, the Macaroni Crosby Drelincourt. Furthermore, Horatia's well meaning but harebrained brother, Pelham, rather worsens situations when he means to aid his sister. He and his companion in arms, Sir Roland Pommeroy (who reminds me of one of my most favorite Heyer hero, Freddy Standen of Cotillion), add a massive dose of comedy to the tale, eventually finding themselves in cahoots with with nothing less than a highwayman in their attempts to protect Horatia's honor. Eventually, our heroine comes to learn that her husband is truly in love with her and did not just marry her for her Winwood nose. No matter what mischief she falls into, he will always be there to bail her out, and with far more grace and decorum than her brother can muster. This unlikely couple prove to be perfectly suited, and I found my self wishing at the end of the book that Heyer had indulged in more than one trilogy, so anxious was I to know what might befall the couple next.