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Authors: Madeleine E. Robins

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The Heiress Companion

BOOK: The Heiress Companion
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The Heiress Companion

Madeleine Robins

 

Book View Café edition
November 1, 2011

Copyright © 1981 by Madeleine Robins

ISBN: 978 1 61138 111 5

Dedication

For my Grandmother, Louise Small George (1894-1980), always a
princess

Chapter One

“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.

o0o

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?”

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