When James Easton goes to India, he catches a severe case of malaria. On the voyage home, still recovering from his illness, he becomes acquainted with Jeremy and Sybil Alleyn, a brother-and-sister duo who were raised in India. Sadly, Body became very long and one of the things I had to cut was all mention of the Alleyns. I do, however, have high hopes for them. This won’t be the last time you see them.
On James’s return home, a familiar carriage stood waiting outside the house. His fatigue promptly drained away and he felt quite himself again as he leapt down from the carriage, not waiting for Barker to unfold the steps. The coachman’s disapproving glance made him smile.
“Hullo Mrs. Vine,” he said to the housekeeper who opened the door. “Don’t let them go before I’ve had a chance to clean up.”
Before Mrs. Vine could reply, a bright voice rang out from the upper landing. “Fancy changing your clothes, just to see us!”
James laughed and went up to the drawing room. “Don’t flatter yourself, Miss Alleyn. I wasn’t going to put on my Sunday best – just wash off some of this dust.”
Miss Alleyn came forward, took both his hands in hers, and drew him into the room. “You’re a sight for sore eyes, just as you are. Look at him, Jeremy! Doesn’t he look well?!”
The gentleman who replied had Miss Alleyn’s reddish-blond curls, but was a few years her elder. “Better, certainly, sis.” He gave James a frank, appraising glance. “Nearly recovered, I’d say.”
They shook hands all round and James made a wry face. “Just give me five minutes to wash, I beg of you. I’m coated with dust. Hullo, George.”
Miss Alleyn rolled her eyes. “Vanity, thy name is man. Go and primp, then.”
When James returned to the drawing room, Miss Alleyn immediately fixed her bright gaze on him. “Your brother was just telling us what you were up to in Town.”
Jeremy looked mildly concerned. “Sure you’re not overdoing it, Easton? I realize I’m not your personal physician, but…”
“As far as I’m concerned, you’re better than my physician,” said James. “If you and your sister hadn’t been on the ship with me, I’d likely have died.”
“Of boredom, rather than malarial fever,” added Miss Alleyn.
“Both,” said James with a smile. “But seriously, Alleyn, I’m quite well now. If anything, I’m wasting away with nothing to do. A little task like this is precisely what I need to complete the cure.”
Jeremy’s frown didn’t quite dissolve. “Still, in my professional opinion, you’d be idle for a bit longer – a fortnight, perhaps. Certainly no more than a month.”
“I appeal to you, Miss Alleyn… do I not look well? Much healthier than when we first met?”
She smiled. “I never contradict my brother’s medical opinions, Mr. Easton, but you could hardly look worse than when we first met.”
George snorted. “You’re very frank, Miss Alleyn.”
“Really, Mr. Easton,” she insisted. “He was a pitiable sight in Calcutta: terribly emaciated, nearly out of his mind with fever, then rattled half to death by violent chills. I’ve never seen such a virulent case of malaria.”
James shifted uncomfortably. He hated to think in what other conditions Sybil Alleyn might have seen him. “But thanks to you and your Peruvian bark, Alleyn, it’s cured.”
“Well, if you’re really determined, I’ll say no more,” said Jeremy peaceably.
“If we’re friends again, why have we reverted to the formality of ‘Miss Alleyn’ this and “Mr. Easton’ that?” asked Miss Alleyn. “On the ship, we were simply ‘James’ and ‘Sybil’. What happened?”
Jeremy shot a look at his sister. “Perhaps it’s not quite the thing, now we’re in England?”
James shook his head. “It depends upon one’s circle. George and I are commoners and nobodies, and rather casual in all things. I’d be delighted to call you ‘Sybil’ again… with Alleyn’s permission, of course.”
“Permission! He’s only my brother.” But her cheeks had flushed pink.
“And guardian, whilst we’re in England…” murmured Jeremy. He smiled meaningfully.
“Well, then: James it is.” She paused, then rushed on, a little embarrassed. “It’s so curious finally to be in England, after hearing our parents talk about it all our lives. I – it’s nothing like I expected. But I suppose things seldom are. Don’t you think?”
“What did you expect?” This was George.
“Oh – “ she waved her hands vaguely, “Acres of green countryside and charming villages, Tudor-timbered architecture, a sedate and orderly populace…”
“And instead we came to sprawling, smoky, choking London,” grinned Jeremy. “Are you terribly disappointed, sis?”
As though she couldn’t help it, her gaze returned to James. “Oh – I haven’t had time to be disappointed yet.”
Jeremy consulted his watch. “Well, there’s still time. We’re due at the College in half an hour.”
The college was a new venture, an institute of higher education for women. James knew little about it, except that fusty old men enjoyed trading unamusing jokes about a “School for Scandal”. “You’ll permit me to call tomorrow, to see how you fared?” he asked.
“Come for dinner. There’s a bottle of Champagne I’ve been saving for just such an occasion.”
Jeremy shot her a fond, exasperated glance. “Better to pass the entrance examination before celebrating, I think.” He smiled at James. “You see how arrogant she is – thinks she’ll stroll into London and take it by storm.”
James returned the grin. “Only London? I thought she had her sights on all of England.”
Sybil had her gloves on and was standing impatiently by the drawing-room door. “England, my dear chaps? I’ll stop at nothing short of the Empire.”
As she ran down the steps with a jaunty wave, George frowned and re-crossed his arms and legs – something he’d been doing all through the visit.
“What’s bothering you?” asked James.
George waited for the front door to close behind the Alleyns. “D’you like her?”
James blinked “I like them both very much.”
“Why?” asked James, rubbing his eyes. A sudden wave of fatigue suddenly rushed over him. “What’s wrong now?”
“Just as well you’re too young.”
“Too young for what?” He stifled a yawn.
But George didn’t reply. He was staring out the window at the place where the Alleyns’ carriage had been.