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Dawn's Untrodden Green
Author: Carolyn Miller


Chapter 1




Stapleton Court of Wooler had, in its day, oft been described as a monument to quiet pretension. The Elizabethan farmhouse boasted more chimneys and mullioned windows than humble people thought it ought and was nestled behind antique stone-pillared gates within a picturesque landscape that included the hilly backdrop of the Cheviots. These days, however, the buildings and gardens held an air of weary resignation, or perhaps that was merely evoked by the occupants within.

Theodosia Stapleton eyed a stubborn string of cobwebs as she made her way down Stapleton’s grand staircase to the dining room, which was, like everything in this house, presided over by her grandfather, General Theodore Henry Stapleton. The decorated war hero, whose only son had died before Theo could grow of an age to remember him, had surprised the county by showing his largesse in allowing his daughter-in-law, Letitia Stapleton, and her wee children to live with him.

“So kind, so very kind,” Letitia had always insisted to her daughters in broken, tear-filled whispers whenever the general’s gout was playing up and his manners were less than pleasant. Theo suspected most of the villagers believed his cantankerous ways were the norm rather than the exception. Not for nothing had she overheard comments about “General Contrary” and his parsimonious ways. But Theo knew better, and it was proven in his agreement to take in the orphaned child of their neighbor … even if it was a temporary thing.

Theo drew inside the oak-panelled dining room, nodding to the room’s two occupants, and resumed her place at the mahogany dining table, at the right hand of her grandfather, opposite her mother, the table seating she had always known.

“Has the Mannering lass stopped her infernal crying yet?” the general asked, eyes glinting, bushy grey brows lowered, a piece of beef suspended on his fork.

“Yes.” Theo sipped from her glass. “She’s asleep now. Annie made poor Rebecca some warm milk, and I stayed with her until she drank it and dropped off to sleep.” But only after Theo held her hand, whispering prayers of comfort, as the last of winter’s winds shrieked and moaned.

“The poor little dear, losing both parents within a year.” Mama’s faded blue eyes shone with tears. “How dreadful she must feel.”

“Indeed.” Sorrow twisted within, pressing fresh fingers of pain through her chest, up her throat, to the back of her eyes. Theo blinked, swallowed the hard ball of emotion, and sought to remember Clara Mannering was in a better place now, with her Lord and Savior, and one day Theo would see her neighbor again.

“Such a silly nonsense, carrying on so.” The general rested his elbows on the starched tablecloth. “I have never heard the like, caterwauling in that way.”

“Not everyone deals with grief in the same manner.” Theo’s gaze lifted to eye her grandfather squarely. “I think it shows a tremendous deal of heart that she would mourn her mother so. I’m sure it will take many days before she will not feel like weeping, and until then, we should remember she is in many ways a child.”

“I dare say you would never have acted in such a way,” he muttered, with a sharp, quick look that, if she was in vain frame of mind, she might even consider possessed a trace of pride.

“I’m afraid I cannot remember my papa, so have not known what depths of emotion the loss of a parent might lead to.”

Her mother’s bottom lip quivered, a sure sign that poor Rebecca would soon not be the only one weeping.

Theo sighed within, ruing her o’er hasty words. But she could not allow the evening to get maudlin, so turned to her grandfather and forced brightness into her tone. “I do think your agreeing to have her stay with us is quite the most charitable thing you could have done. Thank you.”

“Yes, well.” As if embarrassed by her words, he plunged his fork into his beef, avoiding eye contact and mumbling incomprehensibly into his gravy-stained beard.

“We couldn’t let such a waif of a thing live at Mannering House alone.” Mama dabbed at her eyes with her napkin.

“Indeed we could not.” Not dear Clara’s only child. Not their nearest neighbor. And especially not with the house in such a state of disrepair.

“Those dreadful peacocks Mannering insisted on keeping.” Mama shuddered. “They always sound like a woman is crying, or dying, or some such thing. Poor child. Can you imagine growing up listening to that every waking hour?”

Theo was glad she need not. “I’m hopeful that in time we shall be able to distract poor Becky with reminders that not everything in this world is so very sad and sorry. But as for us, we should give further thought as to her future.”

Grandfather grunted agreement, echoed by her mother’s soft affirmative. “Has she given word yet as to who is the next of kin?”

Theo nodded, refraining from pointing out she’d mentioned this before. “Clara had a brother. He is in the army.”

His countenance brightened. “And what’s his name?”

“A Captain Balfour, I believe.”

“Balfour, Balfour.” His brow knit in concentration, his fork hovering in the air, as time expanded into a length that would distress more impatient people.

Theo exchanged glances with her mother, then refocused on her meal. Grandfather’s recollections of army colleagues and events had often formed the substance of their mealtime conversations. Attempts to redirect discussion to other topics sometimes met with derisive snorts as he struggled to remember exactly which battlefield or London soldiers’ club he’d encountered the man or situation.

She sliced her beef, the sputtering candlelight reminding her to speak to Annie about checking the supply of candles. They might have but recently escaped the drear of wintry darkness, but the weather in this part of England could never be relied upon to recall the relentless turn of the calendar.

“My dear,” Mama said, as the general’s silent cogitations continued, “do you think we should make over those drapes in dear Rebecca’s room? I’m afraid it must seem so outdated for her, poor pet. It has been so long since we’ve had a young girl in the place,” she added with a wistful sigh.

Becky Mannering might, at sixteen, be considered more a young lady than a girl, but she was far more youthful than Theo’s own advanced age of one and thirty.

“Perhaps we should wait until we know what her uncle wishes to do.” And what the general—and their meagre household allowance—would permit. “But I agree, it would be good to do what we can to make her feel as comfortable as possible.”

“Speaking of visitors, do you think Seraphina might be persuaded to a visit?”

She might if her sister’s nipcheese solicitor husband wanted to prove solicitous to his wife’s family for once. Theo kept such thoughts behind her teeth and murmured a noncommittal “Perhaps.”

“I simply long to see her.” Mama sighed plaintively. “It has been such an age, and—”

“Are you sure it wasn’t Captain Daniel Balfour?” Grandfather interrupted. “Did something heroic. His decisiveness saved a hundred men or some such deed.”

Theo’s lips tweaked in rueful apology as she shifted attention to her grandfather. She had been too filled with cares and responsibilities to remember every whispered word that Clara had uttered. “I think that was his name, but I’m afraid I cannot recall his exploits.”

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