Her mother had been so ill these last two years, spending most of her days lying unseeing and uncaring on her day bed. Her nights she spent in a laudanum induced sleep. How would the man, hard enough to have rejected his only daughter for marrying against his wishes, react to her changed condition?

They couldn't go to Westerham until her mother was more herself. She determined to persuade her mother to try and return to the real world; Emily continued her journey upstairs, the light of battle in her amazing hazel eyes.

Edwards, Lady Althea's dresser, had succeeded in rousing her. “Come along now, my lady, up you get. There's a letter here for you. It's a long time since we had a letter isn't it?” Edward's mention of the letter had been the key.

“What is that, Edwards? A letter did you say? Hand it to me, please.” Lady Althea Gibson pushed her stringy hair back from her pale forehead, quite unconcerned about her appearance. In her youth she had been in the forefront of fashion but nowadays she scarcely noticed what she wore or how she looked. She just did not have the energy to cope with life without her beloved Peter. But a letter? Now that was worth waking up for. That her daughters were lost without her had long ago ceased to be a concern.

She was ineffectually struggling to pick of the impressive blob of sealing wax when something about its shape and imprint caused her to pause. “It is from Papa! Edwards, this is from my Papa.”

With shaky fingers she unfolded the stiff paper and began to read. For a moment the heavy black scrawl she knew so well danced before her eyes. With a supreme effort she focused and began to read.

My dear daughter, Althea,

It has been far too long since we are on good terms. I admit the fault has been mine and wish to make amends, if you will allow me to. I have sent a carriage to collect you and your three girls. I would like you all to move to Westerham and live with me.

Your father,

Richard Lessing.

Althea felt her stomach roil and was glad she had not eaten. She raised her head and her eyes were full. “Edwards, I am to go home. He has asked me to come home. At last, I shall have back the life that I lost.”

“I'm delighted, madam. That's good news indeed. But if we're to travel sixty miles you'll need to feel well. At the moment you're not strong enough to stand the journey.”

Before Lady Althea could answer Emily entered, her pale serious face for once animated and her remarkable eyes sparkling. “Mama, have you read your letter yet?”

“I have, my dear. Your grandfather has invited us to make his home with him. Are you not pleased?

“I am, of course I am. But there is much to do before we can depart. The carriage and staff that accompanied it are going to put up The Bull, in Misham. We're to send for them when we're ready. I have told them that we'll need several days. Is that going to be sufficient, for you, Mama?” This was addressed at her mother but it was at Edwards that she looked. Her mother's devoted dresser nodded and Emily's smile became broader.

“I should think it would do, my dear. But I must have some new gowns before we leave. It will not do for Papa to think me dowdy.”

“I have already sent to Misham and Mrs Simpson will be here later. Jenny's upstairs in the attics at this very moment collecting the last of the Indian materials we have been saving for such an occasion as this,” Emily told her.

Her mother frowned. “I will require at least three gowns; you and the girls must make do with one. I doubt that there will be enough material left for you to have more.

“It's of no matter, Mama. I'll be content to have one new gown, I can assure you.”

Emily hoped that it was true that first impressions were what mattered. She would wear her new gown to make her first curtsy, after that she would have to return to her meagre wardrobe, and she knew nobody would be impressed by that.

Lady Althea watched the play of emotion across her eldest daughter's face. “I shall ask Mrs Simpson to make you and the girls two dresses each; it is essential that we all have at least one change of raiment.” Exhausted she sank back on her pillows. She opened her eyes again with difficulty, and reached over to take her daughter's hand. “I shall try harder, my love. I shall not be like this any longer. I will be your old mother again presently. Wait and see.”

Emily returned the squeeze and bent to kiss her mother's cheek. “I know you will, Mama, and I will help you. But it's going to take time to restore you to your former health. You must not expect to be back to normal in a week or so; you have been ill for two years, and it could be months before you're feeling quite well. But for the moment you must think about eating again and getting up and moving around your room. You have been lying still for far too long.”

But her mother was once more asleep, and had not heard her. Emily turned to Edwards, her eyes hard. “Give me the laudanum, Edwards. There will be no more.”

“But, Miss Emily, her ladyship cannot sleep without it. She'll be in desperate straits if you take it away.” Emily continued to hold out her hand and reluctantly the elderly woman went to retrieve the three small bottles of black, noxious fluid from their hiding place. “Whatever you may think, miss, your dear mother would not be alive today without that.”

“I know you're probably correct and I'm sorry Edwards. It's not your fault. But I hate to see her this way.”

“Leave me a little then, miss, for when she becomes too restless; it's best to stop it gradually, you know.”

Emily hesitated, unwilling to give the evil liquid back. But Edwards was right; her mother would have died from grief without the pain being dulled by opium. She examined the three small bottles. “You may have this, it's half full. But it's to be the last, be very sure of that.”

“Once Lady Althea is back home she will not need it anymore. Wait and see, Miss Gibson, madam will regain her former spirits in no time.”

“I pray that you're correct. Try and get her up and dressed; the girls will wish to see her later on. They're bursting with questions about Westerham.”

*  *  *

The intervening days were filled with feverish activity. Trunks were found and packed with favourite books and leisure items. Mrs Simpson and her team of seamstresses snipped and sewed with enthusiasm and produced the required garments in record time. Their arrival was greeted with speechless admiration. Lady Althea, although still too weak to remain on her feet all day, was making a valiant effort. It was she who broke the silence.

“Mrs Simpson, you have surpassed yourself. The gowns are beautiful. I had no notion that the

Indian silk would make up so well in that new high waisted style.”

The mantua maker bobbed a curtsy, beaming happily at her customer's delight. “Yes, my lady, such delicate material is perfect for the long flowing skirts. There was sufficient left over to make matching shawls and even trim your bonnets.” Her assistants held up the items for their inspection.

“Mama, you'll look wonderful in that gown. Burgundy and gold are a perfect combination,” Emily exclaimed, pleased her mother was taking an interest in her appearance once more. “And I like the long sleeves and high neckline. Your old burgundy pelisse is an exact match and now that it has been taken in, it will complete your outfit perfectly.”

Serena and Amelia examined the dresses made for them from a length of blue and white muslin. They even had new pinafores and stockings. “Thank you, Em, I love my dresses.” Millie ran the material of one through her fingers enjoying its softness. “And your lilac and silver gown is beautiful too.”

“I know, Millie. I was not sure such a colour combination was entirely suitable for someone my age, but it does look lovely. I think this new fashion is very flattering, especially for someone who is as tall and thin as I am.”

“The colour is very becoming, my dear,” Lady Althea said, noticing for the first time how much weight her eldest daughter had shed.

The outfits to be worn on the journey were hung ready for the following day and the others carefully packed, in tissue paper, in the waiting trunks. Glebe House was to be closed down; Holland sheets covered all the furniture and the shutters were locked. Cook and her husband Potts, the sole outdoor man, were to remain behind to act as caretakers.

As all their horses had been sold there were no grooms or stable boys to find employment for.

Mary, the girls’ nurse, and Jenny, Emily's Abigail and Edwards, her mother's dresser, were obviously to accompany them. Sally, the one remaining live in servant, had found employment locally. The daily women, who came to do the heavy cleaning and laundry, had been given a guinea as compensation.

Everything was as it should be. Emily was still concerned that her mother was too frail to cope with the rigours of a two-day journey but Lady Althea assured her she was stout enough to travel.

Five days after the luxurious coach had first appeared at Glebe House it returned to collect the Gibson family. Their baggage had departed the previous day; it would be waiting for them when they arrived at Westerham. Now the moment for departure had come the family was silent. The girls stopped their excited chattering; Emily felt her chest constrict, but Lady Althea was only worried that her beloved father would not welcome her as she hoped. The house she had spent half her life in was no longer somewhere she wished to be. It held too many sad memories, and was a daily reminder of her insurmountable loss.