October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

Clad in a long skirt, Mickey Mouse sweatshirt and running shoes, her orange mane restrained in a home-made hair clip inscribed with the word Mummy, the Duchess of York bounds through the pleasantly cluttered hallways of Dummer Down, the farmhouse in Hampshire, England, where she grew up. In her childhood bathroom, the woman whose daughters stand fifth and sixth in line to Britain’s throne clambers unceremoniously into the tub. “Every morning I used to stand here, open this window and say hello to my pony,” she says wistfully. “Isn’t it beautiful? I’m so busy I don’t come back here much. But I’m realizing I should let myself. I should just stop.”

As she reaches her 40th birthday (Oct. 15), the ex-wife and continuing “bestest friend” of Britain’s Prince Andrew indeed seems in need of a lower-gear life. This visit to Dummer—still home to her father, Major Ronald Ferguson, 68, and his second wife, Susan, 43 (and when they aren’t away at school, the duchess’s half siblings Andrew, 21, Alice, 18, and Eliza, 14)—is sandwiched between frequent trips to the U.S., where Fergie is a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers (to the tune of more than $ 1 million a year) and Wedgwood ($750,000). The new “special correspondent” for NBC’s Today show (a reported $600,000 for one year) also does work for eight charities and treasures precious hours at Sunninghill Park, the home she and daughters Beatrice, 11, and Eugenie, 9, share with Andrew. “I don’t like this busy—ness-I’m a Libra, I like harmony,” says the duchess, for whom days away from her children are wrenching. (“We fax each other. We’ll cry if we talk on the phone.”)

The payoff: She has finally earned enough to erase her $7.1 million debt. But it’s not cheap raising two little princesses—or fighting to increase a comparatively meager divorce settlement (Princess Diana got $28 million when she and Charles split; when Fergie and Andrew divorced in 1996, she got $495,000 plus child support.) “I’m moving on,” the duchess says carefully of her recent decision to retreat from that particular battle. (“She was hitting her head against a brick wall,” confides a friend.)

Wearying though it may be, her work has improved the duchess’s confidence as well as her cash flow. Still derided in the British press for vulgar commercialism, she has found Americans to be more supportive. “Here,” she says, “people come up to me and say, ‘Congratulations.’ ” Says friend Deborah Oxley, former head of the duchess’s charity Children in Crisis: “Sarah feels in charge of her destiny now.”

It has been a long time coming. In years past, Fergie admits, she practiced “self-sabotage.” (A certain topless toe-sucking incident comes to mind.) She adds that she has brought her lifelong tendency to compulsive eating under control, “and when my weight’s in control, spending’s in control, life’s in control.” At 40, she adds, “I quite like the person I am. I’d like her as a friend.”

To be sure, no amount of self-knowledge can stop life from throwing curves. Diana’s death in 1997 held a special anguish because the two Windsor exes were estranged at the time. “Diana was like that—you wouldn’t hear from her for months, and then she’d be back, you wouldn’t know why,” Fergie says. Contrary to published reports, the freeze was not, she insists, about the assertion in the duchess’s 1996 autobiography, My Story, that wearing the princess’s shoes had given her warts. “I asked her once, and she said, ‘Are you joking?’ ” Fergie says. “A friend told me that the day before [Diana] died she said, ‘I want to see that redhead,’ so I know she was coming back.”

A year later came the death, also by car crash, of Susan Barrantes, 61, the duchess’s mother. Barrantes died in debt, increasing her daughter’s financial burden along with her emotional one. “The other day Beatrice said, ‘Mummy, two years ago Diana died, last year it was Granny,’ ” Fergie says. ” ‘Who’s it going to be this year, you or Papa?’ ”

Through it all, “Papa,” his ex-wife says, has been a prince. “Andrew is the nicest person—sensitive, kind, the top.” He stays in London during the week and was on hand when friends threw her a 40th party at Blake’s Hotel on Oct. 12; at the 25-room Sunninghill, 30 miles southwest of London, the divorced duo have separate bedrooms but share common rooms when Andrew is in residence on weekends. “The girls think we have a different life from others,” says Fergie, “but they’re very happy.”

The unconventional arrangement doesn’t seem to be hindering new relationships. Andrew (who works for the Ministry of Defence) has dated other women, and Fergie has been keeping company with Italian Count Gaddo della Gherardesca, 49, for two years. The usually voluble duchess stays mum on the precise nature of her involvement with the separated but still married nobleman, whose villa in Tuscany she and her girls visited this past summer. “He is a very good friend,” she says.

As for her former in-laws, she makes a point of giving them their due. “I get along very well with H.M. [Her Majesty],” says Fergie, who often dispatches Beatrice and Eugenie to tea with Granny. “I want the girls to understand their heritage. They have three sets of manners, A for the Queen, B for restaurants and C, absolutely disgraceful—that’s me.” But they are “upset,” their mother says, that she doesn’t accompany them to royal functions. “I understand Edward’s logic in not inviting me to his wedding this summer,” she continues, “but I was hurt.”

It has nothing to do with such snubs, Fergie insists, but she and her girls will almost certainly move to Switzerland next year so that Beatrice and Eugenie can enroll at the exclusive Aiglon school. “I desperately want a small house, where I can let the dogs in myself,” she says. “Andrew would come on weekends.”

The duchess’s father, for one, dreams of a more traditional setup. “It is inconceivable that two people who are so happy in each other’s presence cannot get married again,” Major Ferguson says. When asked about the possibility of a royal reconciliation, Fergie says simply, “Who knows?”

Not that it means anything, but just recently, the duchess and her daughters spent an afternoon at Sunninghill playing wedding. “They were the bridesmaids, wearing tea towels over their heads; I got my [wedding] dress down from the attic and put it on,” Fergie says. The dress, she notes, still fits.

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