Read Althea Online

Authors: Madeleine E. Robins

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Althea

Althea

A Regency Romance

Madeleine Robins

 

Book View Café

19 April 2011

Copyright © 1977 Madeleine E. Robins

ISBN: 978-161138-050-7

www.bookviewcafe.com

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.”

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