by Madeleine Robins
“Excuse me, miss, but if you could step into the small saloon for a moment?” The butler’s diffident voice broke into Miss Cherwood’s concentration on the lists and notes before her.
“Someone to see me, Drummey?” she asked, frowning slightly at a bill for wax candles. There were only three persons she knew of who might be desiring an audience with her today, taken up with last minute details for the party as she was. And the thought of breaking off her work to speak with any one of the three did not please her. There was the chance that it might be Mr. Greavesey, the physician’s assistant, bringing Lady Bradwell’s drops and eyewash. Since Mr. Greavesey showed an alarming and distasteful tendency to moist sighings and significant glances when in Miss Cherwood’s vicinity, he would hardly be a welcome visitor. If it was Lady Bradwell’s older son, he would likely be hot with a brainstorm regarding the stables or one of the shooting pens; while Lord Bradwell was as good-natured as the day is long, he was also long-winded when enthusiastic, and totally impervious to polite hints that perhaps one might have other things to attend to than a new design for tack pegs.
The only other person who might not realize that the ladies of Broak Hall were not “at home” this afternoon, Miss Cherwood thought with a sniff, was Lady Bradwell’s younger son, whose arrival had been expected hourly for the last week. Miss Cherwood had no sympathy for Lyndon Bradwell, having attended his mother during much of her illness six months before and seen how important his arrival was to her mistress. Indeed, the party that was consuming so much of her attention was being held at Lady Bradwell’s expressed command, to welcome home her prodigal son, gone these six years in the army, and in Naples.
“Gone for six years, and still it takes him six months to return home when his poor mamma is deathly ill! The least That Man could do now is return according to his own schedule.” Patting a stray curl briskly into place, Miss Cherwood returned her attention to the butler. “Cannot the gentleman join me here?” she asked, resigning herself to Mr. Greavesey’s oily compliments or Lord Bradwell’s inarticulate enthusiasms.
“Well, that’s the first thing, miss. It isn’t a gentleman. It’s a young woman, miss, or perhaps I dare say a young lady. And I believe she’s arrived by stagecoach. And she insists that she talk directly to you, miss.”
“A mystery? Well, thank you, Drummey. I shall join her directly.” This was strange. There was no young woman she could think of who would be calling at Broak on a chill, raining afternoon, certainly not when the house was known to be under covers for the party preparations; there was absolutely no one who should be arriving by stagecoach and asking particularly to see her. Miss Cherwood left the library and made her way to the small saloon.
As she entered the room and her visitor turned to greet her, Miss Cherwood experienced a shock. The face that greeted her, the shade of chestnut hair, even its arrangement, might have been her own mirror image — seven years before. “Margaret!” she cried joyfully, and the two of them flew into an embrace.
“Rowena, you haven’t any idea how glad I am to see you!” Margaret Cherwood confessed at last, freed from the confines of spencer and bonnet. “I was afraid you would turn me away at once. Not but what you may, when I tell you what I have done, but O! Renna, it was too much to be borne.”
“Why, yes, dear, I imagine it was, if it put you in such a state. Now sit here, and I’ll ring for some tea, and you shall tell me all about it.” Miss Cherwood guided her cousin to a comfortable chair, coaxed her to settle into it and to accept a shawl for her shoulders, and, having ordered the tea, seated herself opposite on the sofa.
“Now, what brings you to Broak in the middle of such a cold, dreary day? And in the midst of the Season, at that?”
“I vow, Renna, it wasn’t my idea at all, but I could not bear the idea of going to my grandmamma Lewis’s, and I knew that you were on the way to Bristol — well, in a manner of speaking, anyway. So I left the stage at Reading and bought a ticket to Plymouth, but the coachman let me down almost outside the gates of Broak.”
“Which answers my questions nicely, and tells me nothing about why you are here, or why you were traveling to Lady Lewis’s. She’s not ill, I trust. I find it — forgive me — a trifling bit difficult to believe that your mamma has let you from her sight as easily as that.”
“But it was Mamma’s idea,” Miss Margaret informed her cousin. “Mamma says that I am an ungrateful wretch, and don’t deserve to bear the name that I do.”
If Rowena was supposed to have been shocked by this dire pronouncement, it did not do its work. She shook her head. “Refused an offer she wanted you to accept, did you? Nothing is more calculated to send your mamma into a fit of dejection, Meggy love. I heard just such fustian when I refused an offer from that horrible Sir Jason Slyppe — the fellow with the badly made corset and the spots.”
“He’s now a peer,” Margaret informed her cousin glumly. “He loaned the Regent a scandalous amount of money. And Mamma does seem to want him in the family.”
“Then, begging my uncle’s pardon, she had best marry him herself,” Rowena said flatly. “And you are being rusticated?”
“I wouldn’t mind so much, for I am fond of Grandmamma Lewis, but when I go to visit her she always finds so many ways for me to be useful —”
“A slave,” Miss Cherwood suggested succinctly.
“Rowena!” Margaret protested. “It’s just that I couldn’t face being there all alone, erranding for Grandmamma and being expected to be repentant when I’m not in the least, and —”
“I quite understand, Meg. So you came to me, for which I am flattered. But now — what on earth shall I do with you?”
Margaret looked puzzled. “Do? Renna, I hadn’t meant to be a charge on you —”
“Don’t be an absurd infant, my dear. It’s only that I am differently circumstanced now than I used to be. I think, in fact I am certain, that Lady B will be delighted that you have come, but just on the off chance that I cannot keep you with me for more than a few days — you see, love, I’m an employee now, and not a guest, and Lady Bradwell — well, I do owe her the courtesy of asking her permission before I offer you permanent asylum.”
“If it’s not convenient —” Margaret began, a little stiffly.
“You’ll continue to your grandmamma’s? Nonsense, love. You are no trouble at all. You know what a manager I am, and I am only trying to take everything into account so that we cannot be taken down by chance. More particularly, so that Lady B won’t be troubled by anything. That is my job here, after all, and she’s the dearest old thing, and still a little invalidish.”
“I thought all old ladies treated their companions dreadfully.” Margaret said tentatively.
“Which is what comes, I collect, of reading subscription-library novels. No, Meg, she’s a very kind lady, but a little troubled. First she was so sick — her life was despaired of for a time — but she’s almost recovered now. And her eyes were left dreadfully weakened by the fever, and she will not take proper care unless she’s hounded to do so, and now she’s waiting for her scapegrace son to return from abroad, as he was supposed to do last week.”
“Will I be terribly troublesome to you — or her? Ought I to find a position as a companion, or a governess, or something such?” Her tone was not enthusiastic.
“Who would hire a chit just out from the schoolroom, with looks like yours? You’d have every papa and older brother listening to the lessons in the nursery! Trust me, Meggy my dear. You’ll probably be of great assistance to me by keeping my lady company while I am so busy. I am caught up in arranging a party we are to have on Friday evening — if Mr. Lyndon Bradwell condescends to make his appearance!”
“Who is that?” Margaret began. A knock on the door at that moment announced Drummey and the tea tray, and Rowena, giving orders for the disposition of Miss Margaret’s trunk and bandboxes, now waiting with the gatekeeper at the end of the long drive, did not answer. But when both cousins had their tea and seedcake before them, Margaret asked again, “Who is Lyndon Bradwell?”
“Lady Bradwell’s younger son. I am entirely out of temper with the man. Unreasonable, I suppose, but there it is. You see, he went off to the army six years ago, and then, when he sold out his commission — when was it? I have heard this story a thousand times from Lady Bradwell! I think it must have been two years ago — he’d an offer to become part of Sir William A’Court’s staff. So he hasn’t seen his mamma in all that time. Even last fall, when the poor lady was so dreadfully ill — yes, I’d told you that! — he could not be found, even when Lady Bradwell’s greatest wish was to see him. And now, though she is mending, she is still fragile, and easily depressed, and still he delays his arrival. I have found that ridiculous woman rereading his letter — in which, mind you, he swore to return by the twenty-first of this month — lying abed and reading that letter in the half dark! I swear I don’t know which of them I would like to shake first. And here it is, almost the end of the month, and still no sign of him. Do you wonder I am out of charity with him?”
“Perhaps he was delayed?” Margaret suggested mildly.
“I promise you I know all the reasonable answers, Meg. I just do hate to see Lady B so turned about by his absence. Now that I haven’t Mamma to fuss over, you can see that I’ve veritably adopted Lady Bradwell. And then there’s this party. Thirty couples invited, and we have no idea as to whether or not the guest of honor will be attending! All of which,” Rowena finished, “has nothing to do with your predicament. Now listen, Drummey will have moved your boxes into one of the guest rooms. If you would like to change your dress and tidy yourself a bit, I shall go and speak to Lady Bradwell.” Margaret smiled apprehensively. “Now, I promise I shall neither send you back to your mamma nor let your grandmother make a scullery girl of you. Even if Lady Bradwell cannot play the hostess for you, I have other resources, I promise you. So go along now. I’ll come to you in a while.” She placed Margaret in the hands of a housemaid.
“Rowena, You’re wonderful.” Margaret smiled mistily over her shoulder.
“Nonsense,” Miss Cherwood said firmly, and returned to the office.
Some fifteen minutes later Rowena entered Lady Bradwell’s room to find her employer propped against a mountain of pillows, piles of close-written papers littered across the bed, and her hated blue glass spectacles lying unused at the bottom of the bed. Only a few braces of candles were lit to brighten the rain-dreary room.
“Lady Bradwell, I am shocked at you,” she scolded, lighting candles until the room glowed with their light. “This room as dark as the tomb, and still you sit here, ruining your eyes by reading. What the doctor, and Lord Bradwell, your prodigal son will say! And I shall be raked over the coals for being so remiss — cast out on my ear, no doubt, and now, too, when I specifically need your help.”
Lady Bradwell cheerfully ignored this teasing. “Scold all you like, dear, but do tell me what sort of help I can give you. If you knew how wretchedly helpless I have felt these months, lying here like the stupidest creature in nature!”
In a few short, highly colored sentences, Rowena sketched her cousin’s plight. “I should hate to return her to her mother or her grandmother. Her mother — well, I’ve told you about my Aunt Dorothea, ma’am. And while Lady Lewis can be amusing in an ill-tempered, kind-hearted sort of way, she is a tyrant unless one stands up to her. And Meggy just isn’t up to her weight.”
“Well, my dear, if she is anything like you we shall be pleased to have her at Broak as long as she cares to stay.”
“You are much, much too good.” Rowena gave the older woman a careful hug.
“Not at all, child. I imagine I am as amusing and ill tempered as your Margaret’s grandmother. For instance, I shall expect to meet this paragon of a cousin at dinner tonight. And I assume she is out, and has an evening dress she can wear to our party.”
“She’s out, that I know. As for a dress, I’m sure she has one. If not, I can lend her one of mine.”
Lady Bradwell regarded her companion ironically. “Your cousin is — um, a statuesque woman, Rowena?”
Miss Cherwood permitted herself a rueful smile. “If you mean, is she a great bean pole like me, ma’am, no she isn’t. If you can picture me, at nineteen rather than seven-and-twenty, with my hair in short curls, and less seven inches of height, there you have Margaret.”
“I begin to think that I may enjoy myself with your young cousin, Rowena. Does she ever laugh at you?”
“Would she dare? I could crush her with a look, and she’s not got your presence, ma’am,” Rowena replied delightedly, cheered by her mistress’s good spirits.
“You mean my bad-temperedness,” Lady Bradwell corrected sweetly. “I shall teach her not to be in awe of you. And she and I will sit and laugh at you while you are busy with my errands.” Her voice changed to a mixture of eagerness and ill temper. “Renna, there hasn’t been any word, has there? No, I was afraid not. That abominable boy.” Lady Bradwell’s tone was carefully devoid of all but amused exasperation, but Rowena could have cheerfully strangled Lyndon Bradwell on the spot for the look she saw in his mother’s eyes. “I know you would inform me immediately had there been, yet I continue to be a plaguey old woman.”
“Absolutely impossible,” Rowena agreed solemnly.
“But you’re paid to put up with my whims, you poor child. Well, perhaps your cousin and I can amuse each other, and if Lyndon does not arrive in time for the party we shall simply enjoy it ourselves. Perhaps I will even proclaim your cousin — what was her name? — to be the guest of honor.”
“She would probably be so honored she would blush herself into extinction.”
“Likely enough,” Lady Bradwell agreed, and settled the hated spectacles on her nose, leaning back into her pillows and searching for her knitting. “Well, if you won’t take my wretched John, perhaps your cousin will. A good woman would be his making, but I don’t think I could saddle you with John in good conscience.”
“Nor saddle Lord Bradwell with me, ma’am. But I warn you that just now Margaret don’t seem too keen on the idea of marriage; nothing is so daunting to the spirit as to be badgered to wed.”
“If we were to propose the proper party to her, I imagine her delicacy would disappear very quickly. It generally does,” Lady Bradwell observed to her knitting.
“It might at that. In which case I can only suppose that no one has ever proposed the proper party to me.”
“No, only toadish baronets like that Slyppe fellow, and foolish barons like John.” Lady Bradwell sighed. “Well, go along, child, and don’t worry about me. I shall be a paragon of invalid virtue. Word of a Bradwell, I shall not read, I shall not stir; I shall sit here and very likely bore myself to death over this shabby genteel knitting.”
“You are a wonderful woman,” Rowena assured her dryly. “I shall be up again in a little while.”
Miss Cherwood departed to give her cousin the good news, then returned to her desk in the office to face again the cards of acceptance, the lists from Cook, the bills from various merchants in the village, and the baffling intricacies of who to seat with whom at dinner.
At the evening meal Lady Bradwell and her eldest son John, Lord Bradwell, were introduced to Miss Margaret Cherwood and expressed much delight in the acquaintance. Margaret, having a hazy romantic notion that as the cousin of Lady Bradwell’s companion she should strive to appear as humble as possible, carried only a gauze shawl over her peach-colored evening dress, and shivered quietly in the chill of the dining room until Rowena arrived to send a maid after something more substantial. Lady Bradwell was charmed with the girl’s open, affectionate manner and her obvious respect and admiration for her older cousin. Lord Bradwell, on his part, swore that the two young ladies were first-raters, that he could see no difference between Miss Cherwood, in pomona-green crepe, and Miss Margaret in her peach gauze.
“Devilish hard put to say which one of you ladies is the handsomest,” he protested, this fulsome compliment rolling awkwardly enough from his usually inarticulate lips to convince all of his sincerity.
“The choice is obvious, my lord.” Rowena returned easily. “Your mamma, as always, outshines all of us.”
Lady Bradwell, demure and fragile in blue and gray, her hair hidden beneath a charmingly frivolous lace cap, stared down her nose with dignity at her companion, and denounced her for the basest sort of liar.
The company, thus, was in the best of spirits as they sat to dine.
Margaret, whose knowledge of the behavior of ladies and their companions came only from watching her mother’s friends, and from the pages of novels, was surprised by the free and easy, unaffected relationship between Lady Bradwell and her cousin. Since Lord Bradwell seemed to find nothing extraordinary in their manner toward each other, Margaret was prepared to accept things as they were. It did occur to her, however, that Lord Bradwell was not, in his own phrase, one of the downy ones, and that while his temper was sweet and his manners gentlemanly, his considered opinions on matters beyond the home farm and the stables were not to be relied upon.
Shortly after, when they had each had tea and a few biscuits, Miss Cherwood announced that it was far too late for Lady Bradwell to be downstairs. “If you wish to attend the party, ma’am, you must conserve your strength.”
“You, miss, are an abominable bully.” Lady Bradwell turned to Margaret, protesting, “You see how ill I am used in my own home, child? Well, all right, I suppose I shall never hear the last of it if I do not retire gracefully. Good night, dearest.” She offered a cheek to her son to kiss. “Good night, Miss Margaret. I shall enjoy having you here, I think.” She smiled again at the girl, then gave her arm to Rowena. “Lead on, tyrant.”
“O no, ma’am!” Meg could hear Rowena explaining patiently as she led Lady Bradwell from the room. “You have the cases mixed. You are the tyrant and I am the tyrannized. I do wish you will strive to recall…”
“Wonderful woman, your cousin.” Lord Bradwell observed to Margaret. “Keeps Mamma in line with barely a word at it. More than I could ever do, I assure you. Game of backgammon?” Margaret mutely assented, and they were finishing the third game when Rowena reappeared to suggest that perhaps they too should retire early. Lord Bradwell said all that was awkward and cordial in his good night, and retired to the library, where he was obviously much more at home. The Misses Cherwood were able to make their way to Rowena’s rooms for a comfortable coze.
“But still no sign of the plaguey, prodigal Mr. Bradwell,” she mused as they climbed the stairs.
by Madeleine Robins
$3.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-111-5