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Jane Newton looked up from the letter she was reading with a concerned frown creasing her brow. "Stephen." There was no response from the handsome man seated opposite across the mahogany breakfast table; his attention was completely absorbed by the paper he was reading. "Stephen."
Mr. Newton had spent many years instilling in his wife the virtue of not disturbing him at his breakfast. Since she had apparently accepted this lesson, her interruption of his attention was noteworthy enough for him to set aside the paper and offer her a slightly quizzing countenance.
"Yes, my love?"
"I have had the most distressing letter from your sister, Alicia."
"I should have thought she would be more comfortable now that Sir Frederick is dead, in spite of the circumstances," he remarked coldheartedly, never having had much respect for his brother-in-law.
"Stephen, he has left half of his property to his mistress."
"Good God! You cannot be serious!"
"There is no doubt of it. Alicia has had to sell Katterly Grange so that the proceeds could be shared with that woman." A tear escaped her eye and dropped onto her plate. "Poor Alicia. Seventeen years married to that rag-mannered loose-pin and now this."
"I should have gone to her when he died," her husband muttered contritely. "But I made sure she would not be grieving and with several of the boys down with the whooping cough I felt I could not leave you."
"I know. I felt horridly selfish, but there was nothing for it. She does not reproach us. But, Stephen, what will she and Felicia do? Where will they go? She says very little, except that they are now staying with Lady Gorham until they can relocate. And herintention seems to be to move as far from Scarborough as she is able."
"Well, of course she shall come to us," Stephen said, determination and anxiety written clearly on his countenance.
Jane dropped her eyes to the letter. She loved her sister-in-law and would welcome the opportunity to assist her, but their own residence was bursting at the seams with the five boys, the youngest barely out of leading strings. "Oh, Stephen, she knows we have not the room for them. She has said as much in her letter."
"She could take a cottage nearby then," he replied stubbornly.
"Yes, that would be perfect!" Jane perused the final lines of the letter once more and sighed. "But I think she has not the least intention of doing so. Here, you read it."
Stephen accepted the letter from his wife, the frown on his brow deepening as he concluded his reading. "Nonsense! She cannot be serious. Surely Lady Gorham could dissuade her from such a scheme."
"Alicia has spent many years looking out for herself, all but deserted by that ... Well, he deserves to be called what he was, but one tries not to speak ill of the dead. How humiliating for her! I should die of the shame."
"Alicia is hardly like to do so," he retorted dryly. "But I cannot countenance this idea of purchasing a shop."
"She has very reasonably pointed out, though, that with a daughter of sixteen she can hardly go as a governess. Is it possible that Sir Frederick could have left her that badly off?"
"I have heard rumors for some time that his gambling debts were like to sink him and that the property was mortgaged. No doubt all would have been well enough had Alicia inherited the whole of the estate. Curse the man! He has not paid her the least attention since that woman gave him a son. And what good an illegitimate son would do him only heaven knows." Stephen pounded the table in frustration. "Alicia might have provided him with a son had he stayed by her."
"He was besotted of that woman, as well you know. I have never seen a man make such a fool of himself. And to set up house with her in the most open way, where all London knew of it. Poor Alicia has managed his estate for some sixteen years. Sixteen years! And now to have it wrested from her to provide for his mistress and son." More tears were forming now and Jane laid her head down on her arm in a gesture of despair.
Stephen hastened to her side and comforted her awkwardly. His wife was not given to tears in the ordinary way. She was cheerful even in the midst of the chaos of their crowded, demanding brood. But her sympathy for her sister-in-law, her realization of the pain Alicia must be going through, the confusion for dear Felicia, overcame her. "You must go to her at once, Stephen," she sobbed.
"And so I shall. But, Jane, you must not let yourself be so cast down by this. You know that Alicia will not give in to such discouragement. When I get there she will be smiling and Felicia will be up to some romp. You know that. Dry your tears, love. We will do all we can."
Jane's tears subsided gradually as her husband held her and patted ineffectually at her face with his handkerchief. "Bring her here if you can. Somehow we will manage," she gulped.
He gave a snort. "There is little chance she will attend to me." He accepted her reproving look and continued "Yes, yes. I shall see what I can manage. Do look in on the boys, and I shall come to you before I leave."
When Stephen Newton arrived at Peshre Abbey, he found that Lady Gorham and his sister, Alicia, were expected back from Scarborough shortly. He gladly accepted the offer to rid himself of his travel stains in the guest room which Lady Gorham kept continually ready. He was only slightly acquainted with Lady Gorham and did not wish to disgrace his sister before her hostess. His travels had occupied the better part of two days from his home in Oxford, and it was with relief that he changed into clean buff-colored, knitted pantaloons which extended to his calf, a frilled shirt, and an embroidered waistcoat with a plum-colored coat. He had taken to wearing his own hair without powder over the last year, and felt more comfortable that way.
From the window of his room he heard a carriage draw up to the door of the abbey and he saw his sister, smiling as he had predicted, seated beside an older woman. His niece sat opposite them with another young woman, possibly one of Lady Gorham's daughters. The barouche was old but elegant; a bewigged footman put down the steps for the ladies, who stepped leisurely out into the warm September sunlight and strolled into the house. Stephen quit his room and was coming down the stairs into the main hall when his sister saw him.
"Stephen! What are you doing here?" Then she turned to her hostess with a mischievous grin and said "I told you a letter would only upset him, Lady Gorham. I should have presented him with the accomplished fact."
Stephen was presented to Lady Gorham and her daughter Cassandra, and set upon by his niece, who hugged him fervently. He stood back from her in amazement--even the black of her mourning outfit could not conceal the fact that she had become an enchanting beauty since he had seen her three years previously. She was developed beyond her sixteen years, but friendly as a puppy, and obviously delighted to see her uncle.
"How are my aunt and my five cousins? How I long to see them!" Felicia cried. "You have not brought them?"
"Not this trip. Jane wished me to make all possible speed, something which does not happen when the whole family travels." Stephen turned to Alicia and said "I do not wish to impose on Lady Gorham, my dear, so I would beg a word with you now."
Lady Gorham interposed to urge that he plan to spend several days with them, as he had not seen his sister in so long. Although he thanked her kindly, he remained determined to settle matters as soon as possible, and took his sister out into the garden for a private discussion.
"I hope you know how sorry I am about this pass you have come to, Alicia," he said as he seated her on a bench in the sunlight. "You know I never liked Sir Frederick above half, but this latest information you have sent is truly shocking."