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A Chance Encounter?

Bath, mid February 1848

“Those are lovely,” Kate said, pointing to a set of blue glass goblets in a store window.

“Yes, my lady,” Isabel agreed. “I like the pink.”

They strolled slowly along Milsom Street with little purpose other than inspecting shop fronts, the wares displayed, and the fashions of the patrons ranging from tasteful to outlandish. Grey clouds and a cool wind kept Lord and Lady Beaufort in, but Kate had ventured out, accompanied by her maid.

Kate turned from the window and her gaze fell upon a man standing close by. Hugh Wansbrough, tall and lean, in a very dark blue tailcoat of fine wool with silk lapels, matching waistcoat and trousers, and highly shone black boots, carefully removed his shiny black top hat and stood still, staring at Kate. She took in his long wavy dark hair, fair complexion, and piercing light blue eyes. He grasped a thin book in one hand, his headdress in the other.

“Mr. Wansbrough!” Kate declared, after only a moments hesitation. What a surprise!

“Lady Kate.” He smiled, stepped close, bowed, then donned his hat. “I’m glad… thank you for acknowledging me.”

“Of course, of course!” Kate mirrored his smile. She hadn’t seen Hugh since a steeplechase the previous June, when she recklessly joined in the race without permission and had to make a tearful apology to an assembly of disgruntled gentlemen. She instantly pushed those recollections from her mind and asked, “You’re visiting Bath?”

White Hart Inn, Stall Street, Bath, built

White Hart Inn, Stall Street, Bath, by J.C. Maggs (1819-96), built in the 1700s, demolished 1869.

“I’ve been here for ten days. I’m at the White Hart in Stall Street.”

“That is a busy part of town.”

“It proved advantages for the fair. Not that Bath is very large to get around.”

“Oh… my father and Miss Primrose– that is, my stepmother, were wed on the day of the fair. We arrived three days ago.”

“I had read of their intended nuptials in the news. Perhaps I could congratulate Lord Beaufort and meet his bride? May I ask where you are staying?”

“We’ve taken a house in Laura Place. It belongs to the Duke of Cleveland. It has gas lighting.” Drat, that sounded childish. He probably knows all about the modern conveniences. An awkward silence followed. Say something…

“You were admiring the glassware?” Hugh asked.

“Yes! I favour the blue goblets.”

“That’s done with cobalt or copper, and green is copper too, or iron. I prefer red – it’s achieved by adding gold. Manganese will produce the pink.”

“My maid likes the pink.”

Isabel, who had stood silently to one side, perfunctorily curtsied to Hugh.

“How do you know about colours?” Kate asked.

“I took chemistry at school. I plan to expand my father’s textile business.”

“Aah…” I don’t want to talk about school or business. “What book are you reading?”

“This?” He held it up with great show. “This weighty tome is the Original Bath Guide, enlarged and improved!” Hugh opened the cover and posed sideways with an outstretched arm and serious face. “Ahem… it contains the ancient and modern history of Bath, a description of the public buildings, an essay on the Bath waters, and a variety of useful information. Ahem. Map included! Printed by Meyler and son, Abbey Churchyard, and sold by all the booksellers.”

Kate laughed at his theatrics; Hugh beamed.

“My goodness!” Kate gasped melodramatically. “Where did you purchase such an important volume?”

“A shop in The Corridor. May I show you?”

“Certainly! I adore bookshops. Let’s go.”

Hugh rather meekly presented an arm.

Kate’s first impulse was to take his elbow, but she turned away, pretending not to notice the offer. Don’t accept a man’s arm too willingly. And don’t smile too much. She knew her way to the shopping arcade and started along the pavement, letting Hugh have ample space on her street-side, while Isabel trailed. They each made some mundane comments about the weather, the heavy traffic, and the masses, and soon entered The Corridor, the shelter of the establishment quite welcome.

Hugh sidled ahead in the crowd towards a bookshop. “This way, my lady,” he said with an encouraging smile.

Kate spotted Miss Pierce emerging from a doorway and waved. “You and Lydia may spend some time together whilst I’m with Mr. Wandsworth,” Kate said to Isabel. “Ask her about a fur lined mantle.”

“Oh no, my lady! I can’t–”

“Yes, you shall. We talked about this. If you’re a lady’s maid, you have to possess an appropriate wardrobe. Nothing with bright colours or embroidery, but of fine quality. I enjoy being out in all weather – you need warm clothes. Lydia…” Kate directed her attention to Miss Pierce, who had stepped obediently to her side, “are you out alone?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“Please take Isabel to a shop with winter cloaks and such. My father will settle the account later. Fetch me if the merchant requires a promissory note. Otherwise, wait for me at the High Street entrance.”

“My lady,” Miss Pierce responded plainly, then she swivelled towards Hugh, who had edged close during Kate’s instructions. For a moment Miss Pierce wide-eyed Hugh up and down, but then her heavy eyelids and lowered head hid her countenance. She glided away, Isabel following.

“Who was that?” Hugh asked as he held the door of the bookshop open for Kate to enter.

“Miss Pierce, my stepmother’s maid.”

“She’s very tall.”

“We’re the same height,” Kate said dismissively. “She wears ridiculous French shoes all the time.”

“You look alike.”

“Not very much. Her eyes are brown, and she has freckles. She hides them with pearl powder.” I shouldn’t have said that, sounds nasty… “She has beautiful hair – it’s a much lighter shade of auburn than mine. Most artistic.”

Hugh smirked slightly and looked askance at Kate; she stared back with a raised eyebrow, inviting comment.

“Yes?” she prompted.

“Your hair is black.”

“It is a dark shade of auburn,” Kate insisted. “In the sunlight it shows.”

“It does?”

“Indeed.”

“As you say, my lady. May I observe, whatever the colour, your plaits are every bit as beautiful as Miss Pierce’s ringlets.”

“Thank you,” Kate said softly, and felt her face growing warm, so she drifted towards the nearest counter, drawn to the garish covers of the penny papers. Wanting to appear sophisticated, she quickly moved on to a bookcase containing novels. She glanced sidelong at Hugh, peeking around the brim of her bonnet. He stood near a lamp, examining the map in his guidebook. Kate surreptitiously eased one of her waist-length braids into her line of sight, searching for a hint of red, but perceived only black. I need to be in sunlight. She let the rope of hair drop and concentrated on the books.

Hugh started perusing the shelves, and fell in beside Kate. “Have you attended any balls since arriving in Bath?” he asked.

“I haven’t,” Kate said, continuing to consider titles. “I require dance instruction.”

“Ah… well, you’re not missing much. There’s generally a guinea entrance fee, and a shilling for tea, and the food isn’t the best. Have you selected a novel?”

“I think so… September the Eleventh, Seventeen-hundred and seventy-seven, or, Blanche of Brandywine, a romance.” Kate copied Hugh’s earlier performance and struck a dramatic pose with the book held high, open to the title page. “Combining the poetry, legend, and history of the Battle of Brandywine, by George Lippard, esquire.” She dropped her Thespian air. “An American author. Have you heard of this Mr. Lippard?”

“I have. He wrote The Quaker City. I read it a couple years ago.”

“Did you enjoy it?”

“It was certainly interesting. Rather political. Somewhat… lurid.”

“Truly? Hmm… now I’m in greater suspense. I’ll be curious to read how Blanche navigates the Battle of Brandywine.” This might be as entertaining as a penny serial! Kate studied the frontispiece, depicting men in uniform and colonial garb gathered conspiratorially around a candlelit table.

“May I see?” Hugh asked with an open hand.

Kate passed him the book, he scanned the illustration.

“Let me get this for you, my lady.” Hugh spun on his heel and strode for the exchange and purchase counter.

“No! Hugh, no!” Kate protested and pursued. “Mr. Wansbrough!”

“It’s a mere trifling,” Hugh said over his shoulder. “Please don’t concern yourself. It’s my pleasure. You might buy a book for me someday – a far more expensive one.”

This casual and amusing delivery of a future possibility soothed Kate’s objection to his generosity. Perhaps he will visit me at home? I could show him Father’s library, and let him choose a book to keep. We could go for a gallop, and have tea. That would be nice.

“Thank you,” Kate said when Hugh handed her the novel, wrapped in paper and tied with string. “I’ll start reading it later today.”

The Corridor shopping arcade, Bath, opened in 1834. This is the High Street entrance, photographed in the late 1800s..

The Corridor shopping arcade, Bath, opened in 1825. This is the High Street entrance, photographed in the late 1800s.

“I hope you enjoy it.”

They left the bookshop and made their way slowly along the length of the shopping arcade, easing through the crowds, reaching the High Street doors. The maids were not yet present.

“Let’s wait on the pavement,” Kate decided. “I see some sunshine.”

A doorman let them out, and they stood patiently while several wicker Bath chairs trundled by, the elderly occupants wrapped in blankets, the attendants pushing the vehicles carefully, the wheels squeaking. They stepped away from the shadow of the building into a weak sunlight. Another awkward silence descended.

“Are you in Bath for your health?” Kate asked.

“Not at all!” Hugh replied, straightening his posture. “I’m conducting a survey of merchandise for my father, and visiting historical sites. I’m in excellent health. I dare say, you are too?”

“Yes, I’m sound of wind and limb. What sites? Anything unusual?”

“Have you seen the Oliver Cromwell curiosities at Farleigh Castle?”

“Oh? No…” The name rang like a bell in Kate’s memory of family lore. “Farleigh Castle?!”

“Would you like to visit?”

“Indeed I would! An ancestor of mine, a knight-commander, lived there for a while during the Plantagenet civil war. And it’s supposed to be haunted! Cavaliers and their ladies prowling the grounds! You’ve been there before? How far is it?”

Hugh smiled, and Kate felt her face grow hot. She regretted her display of childlike enthusiasm and turned to hide her face with the brim of her bonnet. She knew to ask one question at a time, and wait for an answer, but had failed to do so.

“I’ve been there,” Hugh said after he took a couple tentative steps into her field of view, “a few years ago, when the museum was established, and several times since. I witnessed the archaeological excavations. It’s about seven miles. Would you… consider… may I take you to the castle?”

A mix of emotions cascaded within Kate: excited, happy, apprehensive. She gave words to her first thought. “I would like that.”

“You would!” Hugh’s eyes brightened.

“I would,” Kate reconfirmed, and she quickly considered how such an outing might be accomplished. Could I just sneak away for an afternoon? No, that’s not reasonable. “You will have to call on my father and ask him for permission.”

“Ah… yes! Of course! I would never suggest otherwise. Do you think he will be agreeable?”

“I’m not certain. I hope so.”

“Shall I hire a fly-carriage? They are only two shillings an hour.”

“I’d rather go by horse.”

“Even better.” Hugh grinned. “We’ll go to the riding school in Montpelier Row, near the Assembly Rooms, and select a pair of their finest hunters – take a jaunt in the Claverton Downs. The air is most salubrious, and the views extensive – my guidebook says so.”

Kate chuckled. “Excellent. That’s south-east of here?”

“Yes. On the way to the castle.”

“And it’s safe?”

“I should think so.” Hugh shrugged. “As safe as anywhere in rural England. And, lest we encounter any ruffians, I carry a pistol.”

“What kind?”

Hugh knitted his eyebrows, cocked his head, and frowned a moment. Kate realized from his reaction that she had confused him somehow.

“Who is the manufacturer?” she added for clarification. “An English gunsmith?”

Still Hugh did not answer, a slight smile curving a corner of his lips.

What is wrong with him? Has he gone deaf? “Is it a single-shot? A revolver?”

Hugh burst out laughing.

Kate felt a little irked. What?

Hugh tried to control himself, guffawed, then laughed uproariously. Kate had to smile at his antics.

“It’s… it’s, ha ha!” Hugh reeled and wiped a tear from his eye. “It’s just… you are full of surprises! What gentle young lady knows anything about pistols?!”

Kate froze and felt dread in her breast. I’ve made another social blunder! It’s like the time I went on about sabres. Why can’t I share knowledge on such basic subjects? I must explain, or he might tell unladylike tales about me. “You may recall that my brother is a gentleman scientist and inventor? And he is somewhat of a gunsmith. I’ve been… my father and I take an interest in his work, and his colleagues.”

“Ha ha, ha ha! I see. Very good. Actually, I have a brace of two-shot pocket pistols. My father bought them in London about twenty years ago. A Mr. Egg was the manufacturer.”

“Joseph Egg and Sons,” Kate said with a nod. “They’re at the east end of Piccadilly, by the Circus. Their craftsmanship is sublime. I’m not certain if Mr. Egg senior is still alive.”

“Astonishing,” Hugh murmured, his amusement replaced by shades of awe.

Isabel and Miss Pierce emerged from The Corridor and approached Kate with small curtseys.

“Well?” Kate asked of her maid.

“I found a cape, my lady,” Isabel replied. “It has to be hemmed. I can get it tomorrow.”

“I must return to our lodgings,” Miss Pierce said softly. “Countess Beaufort is expecting me.”

“We’ll all go,” Kate said, and looked to cross the street, dodging between the carriages.

Hugh sprang to Kate’s side, crossing with her to the far pavement and walking along High Street.

“Perhaps I could talk with Lord Beaufort now?” Hugh suggested.

“No.” I simply cannot arrive on the doorstep with a young man. “Give me your card, then call tomorrow at eleven o’clock. I will speak with my father and let him know you are coming by as a representative of your family to congratulate him and his bride.”

“All right.”

“Then, I will… either enter the drawing room or see you in the hall… and ask about going for a ride in the next day or two. You will mention Farleigh Castle.”

Pulteney Bridge, Bath, built 1789, depicted in the early 1800s.

Pulteney Bridge, Bath, built 1774, depicted in the early 1800s.

They stopped at the west end of Pulteney Bridge.

“I’m a trifle nervous about seeing your father,” Hugh said lowly.

“Oh? You needn’t be. I’ll ask him for permission to go to the castle when the time comes.”

“Until tomorrow, then.” He gave Kate one of his calling cards.

“Yes. Thank you again for the book.”

“You’re very welcome, my lady.” Hugh removed his hat and bowed.

Kate curtsied, then stepped between the maids and started across the bridge.

“My lady!” Isabel exclaimed in a whisper. “He might have been the man who followed us!”

“What?!” Kate was shocked. She halted, spun, and stared at Hugh’s retreating form.

“He’s a six footer,” Miss Pierce said. “And thin.”

“And he knows you,” Isabel added.

“Does his suit appear black from a distance?” Miss Pierce asked rhetorically.

“It does,” Isabel answered needlessly.

Kate remained silent, and resumed walking towards their lodgings. I don’t believe it. Hugh wouldn’t have stalked us. She absent-mindedly fiddled with with a braid of her hair, tapping it on the novel. His suit did look black… hmm… but this sunlight is weak. Yes, on a bright day, like our afternoon in Sydney Gardens, his suit would have shown blue. Kate glanced down at her braid. It’s definitely the weak light, my hair looks black too!
 
 

 



 
  • Michael Galloway

    Thank you for your nice story of Kate’s arrival and encounter at Bath. I look forward to your next installment.

    • R.S. Fleming

      You’re welcome, Michael. Thanks very much for your ongoing kind comments.

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