Lucy and the Duke of Secrets
"Squirrel Scene" - Takeout
by Sofi Laporte

 

Lucy had never intended to take the baby squirrel into the dining room with her.

  Like so many other things in her life, it just happened.

  She’d taken a walk in the park, alone, seething over the duke. So, he wasn’t going to write that letter, was he? Thought she was a lost cause? She kicked a pebble in her path. Then she sighed. Well, the positive side to this was that she no longer needed to be on her best behaviour. What did it matter, when he was never going to change his mind about her? If it weren’t for Arabella, who enjoyed having her here, she’d pack up and leave immediately.

  On the way back to the house, she found the little thing on the floor behind the stable, squeaking pitifully. Who knew that baby squirrels chirped almost like birds? At first, she’d thought it’d been a little bird that had fallen out of the tree. 

  “Poor little baby squirrel,” she murmured. “Where is your mama?”

  She should have left it there.  But as soon as she tried to put him into a pile of leaves, it chirped even louder, as if distressed that she was leaving. Lucy found that amusing, at first. Then she got a bit worried: the little creature was fixated on her and expected her to feed her.

  “Now that’s an entirely different matter if I have to be your makeshift-mama,” Lucy told the squirrel. It peeped. Lucy could not bear the thought of leaving it behind. So, she put the little bundle of fur into her reticule.

  In her room, she fed the squirrel milk, then realised it had teeth and could nibble on nuts and grapes. It curled up in her reticule and promptly fell asleep.

  When Arabella came to take her to dinner, and not thinking, she picked up her reticule and took it down with her to the dining room. 

  The squirrel woke up in the middle of the second course. It wiggled around on her lap and started chirping.

  Lucy covered it by coughing loudly.

  Lady Rawleigh threw her a startled look.

  “I beg your pardon,” she mumbled. Were there nuts and grapes anywhere, or raisins? She looked around. Didn’t the oriental rice have raisins and almonds in it? Where was the dish? Alas, the footman lifted it away. Lucy quickly motioned to him, and he stopped. She loaded her plate full of rice. That ought to provide enough raisins and nuts for the little one. As unobtrusively as possible, she fed the squirrel. She covered it with her napkin. It worked; it was silent again. Lucy breathed in relief.

  The footmen were serving the fowl when the squirrel peeped again. This time it was a loud, high-pitched chirp. 

  “Goodness me, the animal is still alive.” Lady Bleckingham looked at the fowl with suspicion.

  “You don’t say, Mama,” Miss Jane dropped her fork.

  “Nonsense, the animal’s dead and roasted.” Lord Blackmore pierced the fowl with his fork so that the fat splattered on the tablecloth. When the squirrel peeped again, he, too, dropped his fork. “Demme, if the bird didn’t protest me eating it.”

  The duke lifted his quizzing glass and focused on Lucy. “Miss Bell.” 

  She looked at him innocently. “Yes, Your Grace?”

  “Are you, by any chance, impersonating a bird?”

  “No, Your Grace.” 

  “Or any other animal?”

  “No, Your Grace.”

  “Are you entirely certain, Miss Bell?” She looked at his lean, handsome face. Her heart lurched erratically.

  “Yes, Your Grace, I mean, no, Your Grace. I mean, I’m not impersonating anything, bird or any other animal. It would be unladylike to do so at supper. Or at any other time, come to think of it.” 

The squirrel peeped. Lucy pretended to hiccup. “It’s the hiccups, you see.” She hiccupped again. “They sound like bird peeps.”

  “How ungenteel,” Lady Louisa muttered to her neighbour.

  “But Lucy, it sounds like you’re squeaking.” Arabella looked worried. “It doesn’t sound healthy.”

  “I — peep — entirely — peep — agree — peep.” Lucy got up hastily, grabbing the reticule and the napkin.   “You are entirely right. Peep. It’s a health issue. So, if you will — peep— excuse me, I will retire to my room —  peep —  until the hiccups have stopped — chirp.”

She wanted to leave the room, but the baby squirrel had other ideas. Upset at the lack of nuts, it bit into her thumb.

  “Ow!” She dropped the reticule, and out zoomed the squirrel, under the table.

  “A mouse!” screamed Lady Rawleigh and climbed on top of her chair. The other ladies panicked and followed suit.

  “Nonsense, it’s not a mouse, it’s a squirrel. A baby squirrel,” Lucy shouted into the fracas, but no one listened to her. 

  “Catch the mouse, it’s under my chair!” screeched Lady Louisa. A footman dove frantically under the table and bumped his head. The squirrel dodged him skilfully and zoomed towards the door, right towards Lucy, who quickly kneeled and caught it with her reticule. She ran out, leaving behind havoc, hysteria, and mayhem.

  Only the duke remained sitting by the table, sipping his burgundy.

 

  After dinner, Lucy was summoned to the Dowager Duchess’ drawing room. The duke and Arabella were already there.

  Ashmore frowned at her. “Miss Bell. Do you care to explain the exhibition at supper today?”

She felt like a foolish school child. She supposed she owed him an explanation.

  “I’m sorry,” her voice was contrite. “I apologise for having caused such havoc. I’d never intended to take Radegundis along. It was an accident.”

  “Radegundis.” A muscle twitched in his cheek, but she must have imagined that because he looked as severe as he did before. 

  Lucy straightened. “Yes, Radegundis. She is a baby squirrel.”

  “I do not see. Pray enlighten me why you are taking wild squirrels to my supper table, which caused an outbreak of hysteria amongst the ladies.” To give him credit, he appeared as disgusted at such exhibition of hysteria as he was at her bringing along Radegundis.

  “I found him this afternoon on a walk. Radegundis is a baby squirrel who was abandoned by her mother. I had to save her.”

  “You seem to have an inordinately strong drive to save abandoned animals.” 

  “And the outbreak it caused!” Arabella tried to keep a straight face. “Lady Rawleigh climbed onto the chair, and Lady Bleckingham onto the table, and Lady Wilkinson on top of a footman who was kneeling on the floor, and he col-col-collapsed under the weight.” 

  “And Ashmore? Did he at least attempt to reign in the squirrel?” The dowager inquired.

  “No, Your Grace. He c-continued to e-he-eat as usual.” Lucy fought to keep a straight face.

  “Very stoic of him.” 

Arabella looked at Lucy, their eyes locked, both struggled for composure. Then both, simultaneously, succumbed to helpless laughter. It took Lucy a few minutes to get control over herself. Her side hurt.

  “Ha! I seem to have missed out on a most diverting occasion.” The dowager’s eyes gleamed. “I shall have to join your suppers again if they turn out to be this entertaining.” She had stayed in her room that evening.

  “Goodness, Grandmamma,” Ashmore began, irritated. “Pray do not encourage her. Next time she will bring a live duckling to the table which we’re meant to eat for second course.”

  “How awful of you to say so, Ash!” Arabella exclaimed.

  “Or a baby hedgehog..” Lucy lifted her chin. “They’re the prettiest of animals. I saw one behind the stables only yesterday.”

  “No doubt you named him Siegfried or Maximilian or the like,” Ashmore retorted, resigned.

  “Amalberga. And it is a she.”

  “Amalberga the hedgehog.” He looked at the ceiling. 

  One day, Lucy vowed, she’d get him to laugh.

 

***

Lucy and the Duke of Secrets by Sofi Laporte is available here.