Duke Series Boxset Three

By: Fenella J Miller




(Previously published as A Country Mouse)

Chapter One

‘Mama, shall I arrange to have the roof mended or not?’ Emily waited, fists clenched, for her mother to reply.

‘What was that, my love?’

‘The roof, Mama, shall I get it repaired?’ Her mother frowned and closed her eyes again.

‘Whatever you please, my love. You know best.’

She watched her mother sink back into a deep sleep and her eyes filled. It had been so different two years ago, before her father had been killed in a carriage accident. Then Glebe House had been a happy place; her mother lively and beautiful.

Now she lay on the chaise longue all day, taking no interest in anything, making no decisions, leaving everything to her. Her mother was only two and forty but looked years older. Her lovely brown hair was fading and her skin held an unhealthy pallor. Emily realised she was watching her mother slowly fade away, but there was nothing she could do about it.

Her father had died, taking his annuity with him. The small estate produced barely enough revenue to keep herself, her mother, and her two younger sisters, Amelia aged thirteen and Serena aged nine, from penury. She sighed and crossed the room to pull up the patchwork comforter, sad to see that her mother’s skeletal frame barely made a dent in the cover. She returned to the study to continue her search for a way to keep her small family afloat. Her youngest sister poked her head around the door.

‘Em, are you coming for a walk with us? Mary says we can go and look for blackberries in the woods.’ Serena already had her cloak and walking boots on ready for the promised outing.

‘No, Serena, I’m sorry, I have too much to attend to this morning. But I will be up this afternoon to see how well you have learnt yesterday’s lessons.’ Emily reached down and refastened Serena’s bonnet string. The early autumn weather was fine, but since her younger sister’s near fatal illness two winters before, she had remained susceptible to chills and fevers.

Serena grinned. ‘Millie has not finished her French so you had better not come up before teatime.’ There was a clatter of boots on the uncarpeted stairs behind them.

‘I have finished; do not tell tales, Serena. I did it just now.’

‘I am delighted to hear it, Millie.’ Emily kissed her sister and automatically rectified the girl’s appearance. ‘Must you always look so harum-scarum, my dear? If you travelled about the place a little more slowly I’m certain you would get less dishevelled.’

Amelia was at that stage when she appeared to be all legs and arms and flying hair. But even at thirteen her oval face with her huge violet eyes, framed by tumbling nut-brown curls, gave promise that she would be a great beauty in years to come.

Millie shook her head dislodging several more strands of hair from what was meant to be a tidy, waist-length braid. ‘I like to run, Em; I would never have time enough to do all the things I wish to do in a day if I walked everywhere, as you do.’

‘I’m a responsible adult of almost twenty years. I can hardly race about Glebe House. Mama would be scandalized.’ They all knew their beloved mother scarcely noticed their existence but she liked to pretend things were as they should be. She would do anything to make life easier for Serena, Millie and her mother.

Mary, the girls’ nurse, appeared, a trifle breathless, from the narrow servants’ passageway. ‘Goodness me, Miss Millie, you fair wear me out! I can scarce keep up with you.’

‘Then don’t try, Mary. We’re quite content to wait for you.’ Mary had nursed all three of them with love and devotion but was now in her middle years, finding her energetic sister a sore trial to her plump legs.

‘It’s unladylike to run downstairs, Miss Millie, and well you know it.’

Fearing another argument Serena intervened. She slipped her hand into Mary’s. ‘Mary, shall we go and fetch a basket from Cook? If we’re to pick blackberries we will need something to put them in, will we not?’

‘I’ll run and get one. Wait here for me.’ Millie was gone with a flurry of fading blue calico and crisp starched cotton, leaving them no choice.