Althea: Sample

Althea by Madeleine Robinsby Madeleine Robins

Epigraph
For Karen Beecher, 1956-1973
First audience, kindest critic, dear friend

Chapter One

Lady Bevan was discontent, peevish, fretful, tired, bored, irritated, and generally out of charity with the world. This was by no means an unusual state for this lady when awakened before noon, but such was her unreason that she felt inclined, at the very least, to throw something at someone.

So much had conspired on this particular morning to further her distress: Francis’s gaming, which was showing signs, to Lady Bevan’s eye, of becoming a disastrous flaw; the dreadful spot on her chin, which seemed determined to pop out despite all her efforts to stop it; and the horrifying bill from her mantua maker, which had arrived only that morning with her chocolate. It was as she sat abed, sipping the brew and turning over the cards of invitation, that the loathsome thing came in sight: the third notice, after which a letter would be sent to Francis.

The thought of the scene that would ensue should her husband see that bill totally ruined her pleasure in several kind invitations, and in the letter from her best friend, Miss Iphigenia Prydd.

As she cast the dreadful thing away, her ladyship’s dresser, Bailey, came in.

Lady Bevan shoved ineffectually at the tray on her lap. “This stuff is cold. Take it away!” she said in tones of distress. The long-suffering Bailey removed the tray and disposed of it, then returned with her mistress’s dressing sacque.

“Put that thing away, too, and if anyone calls, say I am dead or gone away somewhere. I have the headache, and I expect I shall be quite dreadfully low all day, and all on account of that dreadful bill!” She sighed artistically and sank back into her pillows, looking hopefully at Bailey, who very often had helpful ideas about situations like this. Bailey pressed her lips together unresponsively.

“If you please, m’lady, there is someone already called. That is, ma’am, the lady says she is your sister, but I wasn’t sure, as she looked — well, ma’am —” Bailey paused delicately, unsure of how to proceed to describe the disarray that the supposed Miss Ervine had arrived in.

“Piffle! Althea could not be here. It must be one of Francis’s jests, for I doubt that Papa has ever let Ally go farther than the county border without dragging her back to Hook Well. And whoever it is below, I do not wish to see her. Besides, why should she come and not warn me in advance?” Lady Bevan was pleased with this stroke of reasoning. “Pray send her away and fetch me my salts. I am so miserable!” With a wave of the bill still clutched in her hand, Lady Bevan turned her face to the pillow, and Bailey, after placing the salts bottle within her reach, left the room, wondering all the while how to dismiss the determined-looking lady downstairs.

Downstairs, Debbens, the second footman, was polishing the already well polished handles of the front door in order, as he said to Mrs. Chaverly, the housekeeper, to keep an eye on the young person, who didn’t look any better than she should, if he was any judge of the matter. When Bailey appeared at the head of the stairs and gestured to him, it was with reluctance that Debbens relinquished his polishing rag and went up to speak with her.

“Her ladyship says she’s out and don’t want to see no one, be they princess or long lost sister or the sweep.” The lift of eyebrows that accompanied this declaration was considerably more emphatic than mere words at conveying the doom awaiting anyone who disobeyed her ladyship’s orders. Debbens betook himself down the stairs to where the young lady was seated, drew himself up to his highest dignity, and was about to send her about her business when the young lady herself stood and began to address him.

“Well, then, is Maria prepared to see me? Keeping a lady waiting in the hallway is the most rag-mannered thing, and so I shall tell her, although in the state I’m in I suppose you might have cause to wonder. I shan’t steal the silver plate, and you might at least have offered me the parlor and kept watch on me there. Well?”

As the lady seemed to expect some reply, Debbens collected himself and said in his most reproving tone, “Her ladyship is not within, madam. If you would care to leave a card?”

His tone suggested that she should neither care to leave a card nor to inquire further. He had badly misjudged his subject, however, for the lady gathered her gloves and reticule but did not appear to be moving toward the door.

“Maria abroad before noon? If she was awake to tell the maid to fob me off, I should be much surprised. Come then, show me to her room, and I shall announce myself. I have made a most tiresomely long journey from the country and am in no humor to sit in the doorway until my sister or her husband sees fit to acknowledge me!”

So saying, the young lady neatly sidestepped Debbens and began to climb the stairs. Debbens, meanwhile, found himself quite at a loss for what to do. Somewhere in the back of his head, he entertained the suspicion that it might just be her ladyship’s sister now climbing the stairs. She was stubborn enough, although there was not a look between them to proclaim a relationship. Indeed, the young lady would tower over Lady Bevan’s fair head. By the time Debbens had weighed his alternatives and decided that his position demanded he stop the intruder, she had already reached the landing and turned, unerringly, to the left, toward her ladyship’s door.

In her room Lady Bevan had become aware of a row in the hallway. By now her imagined headache was becoming quite real, and she had begun to beguile herself with marvelous, improbable solutions to the problem of Madame Helena’s bill, which solutions needed silence to be properly nurtured. When the noise began, Lady Bevan reached for her bell to summon Bailey and have the noise removed. But at that moment the noise obligingly walked in. In the doorway stood a tall, dark young woman, dusty and travel-stained, with her bonnet askew and a rent in her skirt, and a weary, humorous smile.

“Ally!” Lady Bevan flew across the room to gather her sister Althea in a strongly scented beribboned embrace.

Miss Ervine, who by this time was indeed beginning to feel the fatigues of a haphazard journey, could only murmur, “Well, Maria, at last!”

“But my dearest creature!” cried Lady Bevan. She led her sister to a sofa. “What on earth are you doing in town? However did you contrive to leave Papa? How very good it is to see you again, to be sure — you positively do my heart good — but, Ally, how in heaven did you get so sadly turnabout, and where on earth did you find that costume?” Lady Bevan rang for more chocolate and requested, with a wrinkled nose, that Bailey dispose of Miss Ervine’s pelisse and bonnet. When Bailey had left on these errands, and to relieve the anxious Debbens as to the security of his position, Maria began her questioning again.

“No, really, Ally, it is simply too bad of you! Giving me no warning and all and turning up on my doorstep at this indecent hour! I would have had a room all ready for you, but now you must take one of the plain rooms until we can mend that. And that must be your punishment for the ill usage of your poor sister.”

“One of the plain rooms will be delightful, my poor sister. In fact, any room where I may lie down and sleep the clock round will be more than sufficient. And, if I know you, having a room ‘made ready’ involves new paper and hangings, which is a great deal of nonsense only for me, Mary. But how are you? You write such wretched letters. All balls and assemblies and routs and new hats, and nary a word of my sister in them anywhere. Your poor footman must have thought me shockingly brazen, but I knew you must be at home at this indecent hour, and I was very firm in my desire to see you. He was equally firm that I should not. Do you know how I found you? I followed that dreadful scent of yours down the hallway until I came to your room. Now stop laughing and let me look at you.”

Althea held her sister at arm’s length and inspected her closely. “Well, still the family beauty. You look so much like dear Mama, Merrit looks like Papa, and I look like no one I can think of. But you look thin, Mary, and tired. Are you well?”

For a moment Lady Bevan trembled on the verge of spilling out her heart to her sister: Francis’s gaming and her own boredom and fretfulness, and of course that wretched bill from Madame Helena. But she shook her head impatiently.

“Of course I’m well. And all the better for your being here. And my figure is much admired. Johnny Wallingham called me wandlike just the other night. But, Ally, will you please tell me how you got here and how you contrived to convince Papa to let you come? And, my dear, we simply must get you something to wear this instant! How very dreadful that gown is. Have you come all the way from Hook Well with your ankles showing thus?”

Maria shook her head: the gown Althea wore was of brown alpaca trimmed in black grosgrain ribbon, and the age of this venerable garment was such that the alpaca had taken on a very definite shine, in contrast to the grosgrain, which had lost its shine completely. Maria had noted the bonnet and pelisse that Bailey had removed. She devoutly hoped they would be burned. Althea was not used to dressing this way at home, Maria hoped, but if she was, it might begin to explain her unmarried state at the age of three and twenty. Certainly she was not homely or without grace, and Maria had to admit that, if her sister had not inherited either parent’s spectacular looks, she had gotten her wit from another source as well — although this was a mixed blessing, as men were shy of smart women as a rule. But brains or none, Maria was pleased as a child to have a new doll to dress.

“I am quite decided,” she announced. “I shall take you in hand. And what is more, I shall make you all the rage.”

“Very fine, Mary. But could I not have some sleep first?” There was submission in Miss Ervine’s voice, and a sort of desperate laughter imminent at the corners of her mouth.

“Wretch, you’re laughing at me. How very disobliging you are, to be sure. Now, for the third time, Ally, will you tell me how you are come here? Is Merrit with you? Tell me everything, for not a wink of sleep shall you have until I know what’s afoot.” Lady Bevan settled herself comfortably upon the sofa and waited expectantly.

“Well, you see, Maria, Papa’s disowned me.”

“Again?” Lady Bevan blinked. “What was it this time? Last time, as I recall, it was for that mad-dash ride you made across the hunt field to save that stupid dog that bit you afterward. I have always thought that a singular piece of ingratitude.”

“In Papa or the dog? This time it was for scolding Merrit — deservedly, I thought — for riding through the rose gardens. John-gardener is almost eighty, and those roses are all he tends now himself — why, they’re wife and children to him — and I cannot think it right to see Merrit chasing around in the roses as if they weren’t there and breaking poor John’s heart.”

She paused thoughtfully. “No, I suppose he must have known that they were there, for he surely felt the brambles. But in any case, Papa heard me scolding Merrit and told me then and there that I was an ungrateful hussy to be arguing with the heir to Hook Well and promptly disowned me.”

“Althea, he never said anything so odiously familial!”

“He assuredly did, and my name has again been scratched from the family Bible, where he had written it in before, along with the text about the sheep returning to the fold. And since I had been looking for some excuse to come to you for an age, I promptly took to my heels and here I am. And oh, the adventures I have had, Maria. They would turn you old and pale!”

As Lady Bevan showed no sign of becoming either old or pale and signaled her sister to continue, Althea did with the liveliest amusement.

“Well, the reason that I look as I do is that I was forced to make my escape quite stealthily, by dint of a ladder at midnight no less. Oh, it was a fine adventure, Mary! I left the house and walked into Hooking by the light of the moon and sat on the steps of the bank until it opened the next morning!”

“Ally, you never did such a shocking thing!”

“Well, not quite that bad. I did use the ladder, but I went to Mrs. Greendragon’s cottage and got lodging there for the night, and the next morning Davy Greendragon drove me into Hooking in their dog cart and I went to the bank and borrowed some money from Mr. Preake, giving him those awful ruby studs of Great-Aunt Amarantha’s as security. Anyway, the walk to the Greendragons’ is much harder than you would imagine, and dear Mrs. Greendragon loaned me one of her dresses. I think it must have been her best, too, which is why I’m ashamed of its present condition. I must remember to send her some cloth for a new dress and my best apology. The dear thing thought it so very romantic to be helping me on an elopement, even if there was no one with whom I was eloping.”

Maria puzzled. “But that does not explain how you came to look as though you had been savaged by highwaymen, Althea.”

“I was as respectable as you please not three hours ago. But half an hour out of London, my coach was thrown off the road by a curricle and pair driving furiously in the other direction. It neatly hedged us into a ditch and then vanished into the distance. I was most distressed, and as for the post boy — I could only be silent and hope that he would not recollect that I, too, am a member of the same gentry he was vilifying. It was all of half an hour before a dear, kind farmer and his three dear, kind sons came by and pushed us out of the ditch and we could be on our way. We had to stop at the first posting house and have some trifling thing fixed, but I simply hid away, buried in the coach, for fear that the boy would think better of it and set me down there. As it happens, dear, I paid him off, and the farmer too, and thus I arrived here without a farthing to my name and wearing the rags you see. How is that for a famous adventure?”

“Althea, you spent all that time with an irate post boy and no maid!”

“Well, you must see that a maid would have been a dreadful encumbrance on this sort of journey, Sister. I could not invite Banders along, certainly, for, even discarding the possibility that she would be able to climb down a ladder in the dark and take a midnight stroll of four miles, I think that her first act upon invitation to such an outing would be to dutifully inform Papa. I did leave Papa a note, thanking him kindly for his care and support through the years — and suggesting that he might forward any communications to me through you. Do you mind?”

“Althea, it is beyond me that you could leave Papa such a note, which is not to say that he didn’t deserve it, for anyone can see that you had to break loose from your confinement at Hook Well after all this time. But to accomplish the whole thing by yourself in such a businesslike fashion! There is something quite unladylike about it. Did you really pawn Aunt Amarantha’s studs?”

“Yes. Mr. Preake told me that he was not giving me a fraction of their real worth, for that would be pawning them rather than ‘using them as security,’ which is so very much more genteel. But I think, all the same, that I pawned them. I suppose that I must pay back the loan and get the studs back. But it is a shame, for they are in the worst of bad taste. In any case, I must wait until I have next quarter’s allowance.”

“Ally, Papa could not stop your allowance, could he?”

“I asked Mr. Preake just that question, but he says that it is impossible, for the money was Mama’s fortune and is tied up so that Papa has no say in the matter at all. Else I daresay he would have put it in Merrit’s hands by now.”

“That is unjust!” cried Lady Bevan in tones of shock.

“No such thing. I don’t say Papa is dishonest, just overzealous. You know that if Papa heard there was a chance of acquiring the English Channel for Merrit, he would do so. Therefore, Mary, here am I, disowned and quite willing to remain for the time being, at least. Will you have me?”

“Of course. And I suppose Francis will be delighted — not that I see him enough to know what is his delight these days. I think he will be glad to have someone who will amuse me,” Maria said plaintively.

Althea did not reply to this speech but noted it carefully. She thought to herself: Plenty of time to smooth things out here. It is good I have come. Then she yawned. Maria, seeing that yawn, was instantly repentant. “You look fagged to death, and I keep you here talking.”

“I admit that if I do not find a place to rest very quickly, I am like to fall into strong hysterics, or the vapors. I think the vapors, for they require far less exertion. And if I swoon away, perhaps you will be so good as to have me placed on a bed.” Althea rose stiffly from the sofa and took a turn around the room, inspecting the portrait of their father that hung in an alcove: his wedding gift to his daughter. Lady Bevan lost herself for a moment in studying her sister — the tall elegant figure in that ill-fitting gown; the strong, handsome face; the dark, thick hair coiled heavily atop her head; the graceful movements of her hands against the dark alpaca.

Her ladyship made plans.

“You shall rest immediately, but tomorrow we begin to make a woman of fashion of you, and I plan to enjoy myself very much!” She rang for Bailey. “Please take Miss Ervine to her room and see that one of the maids is sent to do for her until her own arrives — do you believe that Banders will come to London in the light of day, if she has no ladders to climb? Else we must engage you a new maid. I shall take you to my dressmaker and have Monsieur Philippe do your hair. Which is exceedingly kind of me, you know, for everyone knows that he is an absolute genius. No, go away and let me plan. This becomes so exciting!”

In the midst of visions of muslins, crepes, and lace, Maria patted her sister’s shoulder absentmindedly. Bailey stopped at the doorway behind the departing Althea.

“If you please, m’lady, Mr. John Wallingham left his card and said that he would be back at two.” Bailey hovered expectantly for the inevitable flurry of orders.

“At two! Lord, girl, settle my sister as quick as ever you can and come back direct. I’ve barely an hour to dress. At two!” As Althea left the room, it echoed with these sounds of dismay. Bailey followed after, and Lady Bevan rose to begin her daily activities.

______________________

Copyright © 1977 Madeleine E. Robins



Althea by Madeleine Robinsby Madeleine Robins
$3.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-050-7

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