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The slight young man scanned the still surface of the ornamental lake. Ringed by yellowing reeds, it reflected the cold steel-grey of the twilight sky. In spite of top-boots and buckskin riding breeches, his lame leg ached with the chilly dampness.
"Mother!" he called again.
A rustle among the yellowing reeds preceded the appearance of a sleek brown head. Dark, intelligent eyes questioned him.
"Tell Mother I'm here."
The otter whistled and slid into the water. Spreading ripples lapped at the reeds. Edward waited.
Not for the first time, he wished his mother would remove into the house for the winter. She swore she felt warmer at the bottom of the lake, whither she had retired when her beloved husband died, but it was deuced uncomfortable for Edward when he wanted to talk to her.
At least the concealing woods kept off the biting wind.
Smoothly silent as a trout rising to a fly, Daphne, Baroness Tarnholm, ascended from the depths, spangled with silvery drops. Green-gold hair, slanted eyes the green of water-worn bottle glass, a piquant face with pointed chin, slender white shoulders, small, high breasts...
"Oops, sorry, dear."
Her ladyship ducked, to reemerge a moment later with the offending portions of her anatomy covered by two tiny scraps of fabric, purple spotted with yellow.
"Good Lord, what is that?" asked her son, stunned.
She glanced down at her front. "It's my itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot bikini," she said with pride, then added sadly as she saw his blank expression, "Drat, wrong century."
Ducking again, she came up draped in a swansdown shawl. "There we are. Now we can talkwithout you getting all hot and bothered."
"I could do with some heat."
She gestured at him with slightly webbed fingers and at once a gentle warmth seeped through him, easing the pain in his leg. The sodden wood of the nearby bench lightened as it dried with magical speed. "Sit down, dear, and tell me what's going on."
"Reggie's coming home, Mother, and it is all my fault," he told her gloomily. "I wrote to him to point out that Cousin Lizzie will be eighteen next month and really ought to make her bow to Society come spring."
"That's bringing the duke home? After five years of utterly ignoring the existence of his sisters?"
"He writes that a friend of his pointed out to him that if he doesn't marry them off, he'll have them on his hands forever."
"On your hands, Edward. Who has overseen their upbringing since your dear father died? Not the noble Duke of Diss. Though I cannot altogether blame him; last time I saw them, I decided a more shockingly insipid troop of young ladies doesn't exist. They take after their mother. Alicia never had an ounce of gumption."
"I'm fond of my aunt," he protested, "and of my cousins, too. By the way, it's past time you came up to the house and entertained them to tea. It's all very well being thought an eccentric recluse, but if you are never seen I shall be suspected of doing away with you."
"Nonsense, the duchess knows very well what I am."
"For thirty years she has managed to persuade herself that she imagined the débâcle of my christening."
"Oh, very well. Arrange a date and I'll struggle into my crinoline.... No? Thank heaven for small mercies! Of all the simply frightful fashions, only the Grecian bend is ... was ... will be worse. I do get a bit confused about time, living down here," Lady Tarnholm admitted.
"I shall check what you are wearing before you appear in the drawing room. How we should manage without loyal and discreet servants I cannot imagine."
"They are quite as fond of you as they were of your father, dear."
"And of you, Mama, on the rare occasions they see you. Anyway, as I was about to say, my chief concern is not for my cousins. Reggie cannot get his sticky hands on their dowries, and they are all pretty enough, besides being sisters of a duke. They will find husbands whether or not I can persuade him to sport the blunt for their Seasons."
"Then what has got your knickers in a twist?"
"What has what?! Never mind, I can guess. I'm worried about the maidservants and farmers' daughters. You know Reggie's disgraceful reputation."
"I shouldn't worry, dear. Country innocents have never appealed to him in the least. He'll not spare a second glance for dairymaids in stuff gowns and pattens or tweenies in caps and aprons."
"In-between maids. An unhappy and downtrodden cross between a housemaid and a scullerymaid. You don't have any?"
"Not to my knowledge," said Edward dryly. "I trust none of my servants is downtrodden."
His mother concentrated, the lightest of frowns wrinkling her smooth, white forehead. "Ah, late Victorian, I believe. Sixty or seventy years hence. No, Reginald wouldn't care for tweenies. He's too frightfully like his father for words. It's the bejewelled and painted Birds of Paradise in their silks and satins he fancies."
Edward sighed. Just as the fashionable Cyprians of London used their fine attire to attract protectors, he could, if he chose, use his title and fortune to win a bride. But he didn't want a wife who had married him for the sake of her own or her parents' ambition.
He wanted to be loved. Yet what woman could love a man with a limp, with one shoulder a smidgeon higher than the other, with fox-red hair, eyes of a curious silvery grey, and a face that missed ugliness by a hairsbreadth? Add his small, fine-boned stature and it was no wonder the villagers regarded him as a changeling.
Old Mrs. Stewart was drowsing in her rocking chair, her snowy cap resting against the back, mittened hands folded in her lap. With a sigh of regret, Martha marked the place in Miss Maria Edgeworth's Tales of Real Life with a leather bookmark and set the volume on the table.
Tucking the pink shawl securely around the old lady's shoulders, her rug about her black bombazine knees, Martha poked up the fire before she took her money from the table. She loved reading aloud to the vicar's aged mother. Mam did not mind, because young Mrs. Stewart paid her as much for her time as she would get for sewing.
The vicar's wife--fifty if she was a day but still Young Mrs. Stewart to the villagers--was passing through the front hall when Martha stepped out of the old lady's room.
"She's asleep, madam," Martha said, bobbing a curtsy.
"She always sleeps well after you have read to her, Martha. She does enjoy it so. You read very well."
"It's thanks to you I can read at all, madam, and write. And I enjoy it, too. If it wasn't for this job, I'd never have a chance. I'll be away home now if there's naught else you want me to do while I'm here."
"There is something. Just a moment." Frowning in thought, Mrs. Stewart continued absently, "You have an excellent speaking voice, also, not at all common as one would expect of a miller's daughter."
"Thanks to Mrs. Ballantine, madam. Whenever I go to sew for her young ladies at the Academy, I'm allowed to listen to their lessons," Martha explained patiently, not for the first time. Young Mrs. Stewart was renowned for her forgetfulness.
"Sew!" she exclaimed. "That is it. I tore the lace on my Sunday best grey silk, and no one can do invisible mending as well as you can, my dear."
Martha much preferred creating new gowns to mending old, but with eight younger brothers and sisters to be fed, any kind of work was not to be turned down. Her tiny, neat stitches soon fixed the rent to Mrs. Stewart's satisfaction.
She left the vicarage with an extra sixpence jingling in the pocket of her old blue woollen cloak. Walking homeward past the church and through the village, she cheerfully hummed the old ballad of John Barleycorn.
"They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,
"Throwed clods upon his head.
"And those three men made a solemn vow,
"John Barleycorn was dead."
In the gardens of the reed-thatched, whitewashed wattle and daub cottages, nothing grew but Christmas roses, snowdrops, and cabbages. It was a mild day for January, though, and Martha threw back the hood of her cloak. On a day like this, spring seemed not so very far away.
"Then they let him lie the winter through,
"Till the rain from heaven did fall.
"Then little Sir John sprung up his head,
"And soon amazed them all."
As she passed the Pig and Peasant at the crossroads, Tad, the landlord's son, dashed out.
"Martha," he cried, "I bin watching for you. You going home? I'll walk a ways wi' you."
She tossed her golden curls and said, "Who invited you?" but she smiled. Tad was a likely lad, strong as an ox with his thatch of straw-colored hair and merry eyes.
"Aw, Martha, you know you be agoing to marry me in the end."
"That I'm not! Or maybe I am, but not for ages yet. If Lady Elizabeth goes off to London-town come spring, I want to go along as her abigail."
"Aw, Martha, I can't wait that long!"
"If you can't there are plenty who will," she assured him, cornflower-blue eyes flashing.
"There's not so many as has a good living waiting for 'em like I has at the Pig."
"What if the duke was to decide to rent the inn to someone else?" Martha teased.
"Why would he? 'Sides, long as he gets his rent his Grace don't care a button who's landlord o' the Pig, off raking in London as he is. He ain't bin near Willow Cross in going on five year."
"I can't remember when he was here last," she conceded.
"Lord Tarnholm's the one as says what goes," Tad persisted, "and he's fair for all he's a changeling. He wouldn't turn anyone out for naught. So Lady Elizabeth's really going to London, is she?"
Martha shrugged. "She's eighteen. It's time for her to make her curtsy to the poor old Queen and go to fancy balls and such, looking for a proper husband. But it all depends whether the duke remembers she exists."
"He don't take no more account o' his family nor he don't o' his tenants," Tad agreed.
Reaching the humpbacked bridge over the stream by the mill, they stopped to lean on the stone parapet and watch the swirling waters below. The usually placid brook was swollen with winter rains, its roar competing with the familiar creaking rumble of the great mill sails. Above the din, Martha heard the thunder of galloping hooves.
Round the bend of the lane on the other side of the stream sped a coach and four.
Martha and Tad scrambled out of the way as the top-hatted, coachman, huge in his multi-caped greatcoat, reined in his team to cross the narrow bridge. The matched blacks were lathered with white froth from their wild course. On the door panel of the royal blue carriage a ducal crest was picked out in gold. Through the window, Martha caught a glimpse of a darkly handsome, arrogant face within, before the coachman whipped up the horses again.
"Looks like he 'membered his sister arter all," Tad observed, staring disconsolately back down the village street after the racing carriage with the two footmen clinging on behind. "And a right hurry he's in. Let's hope he don't start poking his nose in and interfering wi' the rest on us, for we go on mighty well wi'out his Grace."
Martha nodded, said goodbye, and went on to the mill house with her head in the clouds. Never in all her born days had she seen such a splendid, dashing gentleman.
"The duke's come home," she told her mother, a plump, grey-haired, harried woman with a child on her hip and another clinging to her skirts. "He's ever so handsome."
"Handsome is as handsome does," Mam grunted, stirring the savoury-smelling soup in the kettle hanging over the fire, "and by all accounts his Grace ain't one to put hissel' out for nobody. It's to be hoped he don't upset things as is running smooth without him. Take your cloak off now, Martha, and cut some bread and bacon for supper."
Dreamily, Martha obeyed. A duke was something special, she thought. You could not judge him by the same standards as ordinary people.
Posted October 7, 2010
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