Fenella Miller

A Country Mouse

Chapter One

“Mama, shall I arrange to have the roof mended or not?” Emily waited, fists clenched, for her mother, the Lady Althea Gibson, 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.”

Emily 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 Emily. Her mother was only two and forty but looked years older. Her lovely brown hair was fading and her skin held an unhealthy pallor. She realized she was watching her mother slowly fade away but there was nothing she could do about it.

Her father, Mr Peter Gibson, 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. Emily sighed and crossed the room to pull up the patchwork comforter, her mother's skeletal frame barely making a dent in the cover, then she returned to the study to continue her find a way to keep their small family afloat.

“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 sisters near fatal illness two winters before, she had remained susceptible to chills and fevers.

Serena grinned up at Emily. “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 her appearance. “Must you always look so harem-scarem, my dear? If you travelled about the place a little more slowly I'm certain you would get less dishevelled.”

Amelia Gibson was at that stage when she appeared to be all legs and arms and flying hair. But even at thirteen her oval face, with its 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 Emily liked to pretend things were as they should be. She would do anything to make life easier for Serena and Millie and her mother.

Mary, the girls nurse, appeared, a trifle breathless, from the narrow servants passageway.

“Goodness me, Miss Millie, you fare 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 the Gibson girls with love and devotion but was now, in her middle years, finding the energetic Millie 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.

Emily laughed. “It's no good fretting, Mary. Millie will grow out of it; after all I did, did I not?” She watched the three depart, chattering happily, down the weed filled drive, and closed the heavy oak front door, returning to her duties. It seemed a lifetime since she had either the freedom, or the inclination, to dash about the place.

The past two years had been grey and oppressive. Angrily she slammed the study door behind her. Her maternal grandfather, the Earl of Westerham, was entirely to blame for their present miserable situation.

Her mother, Althea, had been born unexpectedly to the Countess when in her forties, and had been much petted and spoilt by both doting parents. Her older brother, Peregrine, had already left home and married when his parents presented him with an infant sister. He viewed the whole proceedings with extreme distaste and had never exchanged more than a few words with his sibling.

When Althea married, against the wishes of her parents, one Mr Peter Gibson, a country squire of impeccable birth but moderate income, her parents had been displeased. However all might have been well if the Countess had not died soon afterwards before they could be reconciled. The Earl blamed his daughter for his wife's death and never forgave her.

Whilst her father had been alive, Emily knew her mother had been able to contain her grief at the Earl's harsh treatment, but now the misery of losing her husband had uncovered the old wound and it was proving too much for her. Lady Althea was suffering from a nervous condition, which became worse as each day passed, which had started after she had become a widow.

Emily had written to her grandfather, telling him of her father's death, and her mother's poor health, but had received no response. She knew there was no point applying to her Uncle Peregrine for he had died many years ago. She supposed that she must have cousins and second cousins but the connection was too distant to be of any use to her now.

Her spirits sank when she looked at the pile of papers on the desk. All demands for payment and she had scarcely enough funds to cover them. And now the roof had sprung a leak and there was nothing she could do about it. At this rate Glebe House would fall down around their ears before they had the wherewithal to repair it.

She sank back on one of the threadbare, sagging chairs and her shoulders slumped. What could she do? Was there no way out or did certain ruin face them? Where could she obtain the necessary money to solve their problems?

Suddenly she sat up; clapping her hands to her mouth as an incredible idea occurred to her. Yes; it was the only way. She would find a wealthy man and marry him. She frowned as a potential problem occurred to her. She didn't know any men wealthy or otherwise. But she knew someone who did!

She scrambled up and hurried over to the desk. She pushed the pile of bills to one side and placed a clean sheet of paper in front of her. She would write, one last time, to her grandfather.

He was, after all, her guardian, and the head of her household, even if so far he had ignored his duties.

She carefully trimmed a quill and prepared to write the most difficult letter of her life. She was going to ask her grandfather, the Earl of Westerham, to find her a suitable husband. Years ago he had arranged a match for his daughter, Althea, but she had refused his choice. Perhaps his granddaughter's willingness to be married to a man that he selected would heal the breach between the families.

If her mother had been well Emily would not have contemplated such a drastic step but in the present circumstances she doubted that her decision would be questioned.

*  *  *

“Have you taken leave of your senses, my lord?” The Right Honourable, Sebastian Edward Lessing, the Viscount Yardley, looked down his long aristocratic nose at his great-grandfather, the Earl of Westerham, seated comfortably in front of a roaring apple wood fire.

“Sit down, my boy, and stop glaring at me. I have merely suggested that you consider marrying my granddaughter, Emily Gibson. I do not see why you are so outraged.”

The tall, elegant young man, kicked viciously at a log in the grate, making the sparks shoot up the wide chimney. “I have no desire to become leg shackled, my lord. I have my duties in the government to perform. Taking a wife in such circumstances would be the height of folly. Good God, sir, I am hardly in the country at the moment. Since Boney escaped from Elba I could be sent abroad at any moment, surely you understand that?”

“Exactly, my boy, and what happens if you are killed? I know you are a diplomat, but you are often at the front line of battle, are you not?” Reluctantly Sebastian nodded. “You have no heir, with your death the title would die out, would you have that happen?”

“No, of course not.” Sebastian turned, flicked a piece of ash from his glossy top boots, and strolled back to stare unhappily out of the window. Acres of lush parkland rolled away from him.

Westerham had been in the Lessing family for hundreds of years; he owed it to his ancestors to ensure it remained so. He supposed great-grandfather was correct; he really had no choice. He needed to marry and set up his nursery.

“Very well, sir; I accept that I need to find a wife. But why my second cousin Emily? I did not know of her existence until five minutes ago. And what makes you suppose she would wish to marry me?”

The Earl chuckled and his harsh features softened. “Here, my boy, read this.” He waved a much crumpled piece of paper in front of Sebastian who reached over and took it. He read the missive with growing astonishment. His finally arched eyebrows disappeared under his fashionably cropped hair. His voice dripped with disdain.

“Emily Gibson, my lord, is outrageous. To offer herself up for sale in this manner shows a lack of refinement and breeding I could not countenance in a wife of mine.”

“How dare you insult my granddaughter, Yardley. I will not have a word said against Emily.” The Earl glared at his great-grandson until the younger man flushed and looked away. Sebastian did not offer an apology. “It is my fault, you see; I blamed her mother for my wife's death. The child wrote to me two years ago begging for my assistance when her father died but I ignored her appeal.” The old man openly wiped his eyes. “I am head of the family; it is my job to take care of them. I have been very remiss not to have done so before. I want to be reconciled with my daughter, Althea, before I meet my maker.”

Sebastian snorted. “Well and good, sir. You can do that without involving me in your plans, can you not?”

“I am four and eighty, my boy, and however robust I appear, I can not have long left on this earth. You wish to find a wife, my granddaughter wishes to find a husband, what better arrangement could there be?”

“I could select a wife for myself.”

“When do you have the opportunity? You are not part of the fashionable set, you do not attend Almack's, or debutante balls, how are you going to meet someone more suitable, tell me that?”

Sebastian shook his head in frustration. He could feel himself being pushed into a corner. Then unexpectedly he smiled. “Very well, my lord. I will agree to meet this young woman, but if she is not to my liking, I reserve the right to refuse. Is that acceptable?”

The Earl of Westerham smiled back. “Excellent! I am sure Emily will be a lovely girl; her mother was a diamond of the first water at her age. She is certainly resourceful and intelligent. Her letters to me are proof of that at least.”

“When do you wish me to return to inspect the girl?”

“I intend to send my carriage for them today; it is to be hoped they would be here by the end of the week. There are two younger girls as well. It will be wonderful to hear the sound of children about this huge empty place once more.”

Sebastian shuddered. He had three unknown country cousins to contend with? What a lowering thought; if he decided to marry the eldest, Emily, he supposed he would be expected to provide for the other two as well. He had no dealings with children and desired to keep it that way for as long as possible.

“I must return to town, sir. I am wanted in Cabinet. I will endeavour to visit Westerham sometime next week.”