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A Garden Adventure

Bath, mid February 1848

“This is excellent,” Kate said as she hopped down from the first class carriage onto the platform.

“You’ve been here before,” Jane stated plainly. “You act as though it’s new to you.”

“We’ve come by coach, and by water from Bristol,” Kate explained. “This is the first time I’ve visited Bath since the railway was completed. I recall the works going on, especially the digging in Sydney Gardens.”

“So it’s been a few years.”

“Quite a few. We were here for the opening of the Royal Victoria Gardens. What year was it, Father?”

Lord Beaufort, directing his valet and a pair of porters with the luggage, turned to his daughter with raised eyebrows. “The Horticultural Gardens? Late in May of Forty.”

“You were only six,” Jane said as they started moving towards a ramp leading down to street level.

“I remember the event clearly,” Kate replied, then added quietly, “I picked some of the display flowers.”

“Ha ha! You raised the hackles of a few old dames!” Lord Beaufort chortled. “We were here again in Forty-one and Forty-two.”

A Firefly locomotive pulls out from the Bath Great Western Railway station, 1846.

A Firefly locomotive pulls out from Bath Station, Great Western Railway, 1846.

“My lady?” Isabel, Kate’s maid, a small unobtrusive young woman, offered an umbrella.

A grey day with a cool breeze and light rain, low clouds obscuring the hills, Jane and her maid (the lovely Lydia Pierce) each held an umbrella at the ready. Miss Pierce stood as tall as the average man, but favoured footwear that elevated her to significantly lofty heights for a woman. She was statuesque, wore fine clothes, styled her auburn hair with extravagant side ringlets, spoke softly, seemed melancholy, and seldom displayed any emotion. Kate accepted the protection from the weather without comment, and nodded her thanks to Isabel. The party stepped out of the station to the waiting hackney carriages, the servants occupying one, the Beaufort family following in another.

“Take your time,” Lord Beaufort instructed the driver, then climbed in beside Jane.

“Not the nicest day for our arrival, my lord,” Jane commented.

“Doesn’t bother me in the least, my lady.” Lord Beaufort gasped his bride’s hand and grinned at her with a twinkle in his eye.

Kate stared studiously out a window while her father and stepmother shared a brief passionate embrace. The wedding ceremony, performed two days previously, seemed to have taken place a week ago. Kate realized how tired she felt, settled back, and closed her eyes. Such tension and pressure had existed to ensure everything went smoothly. The conversations, people, families, food, wine, clothing, hair… it was all a blur. She thought there had been opportunities to visit with dear friends and countless acquaintances, but no time to have a genuine dialogue with any of them; not even her brother.

They crossed Pulteney Bridge and soon rolled to a stop in a square, in front of a grand Georgian row house crafted of Bath stone. Their servants were waiting on the pavement, with travel coats, capes, and headdresses removed, the front door wide open. The half-dozen domestics who lived in the residence were all turned out in their uniforms, waiting to greet their guests. Lord Beaufort led the introductions, then proceeded with Jane into the front hall, then up to the first floor, which contained the drawing room and master bedchamber suite. Kate followed with Isabel, and they slipped away with one of the maids. She took them to rooms on the second floor for Kate’s use. The servants were housed on the third floor.

“This house has gaslights!” Kate declared, when she took a moment to look at the fixtures.

“Yes, my lady,” the maid said with a nod. “Only the finest. There’s even talk of changing the chandeliers to gas.” She demonstrated how to turn on the gas with a little valve. “I’ll light these for you,” she went on. “They are extinguished by closing the lever. Make certain to keep the lever shut tight when the lamps aren’t lit.”

Isabel quickly set to work unpacking the luggage, Kate helping to put her gowns in the wardrobes provided. The day grew dark, rain falling in sheets, Kate feeling quite relieved to have a quiet dinner and retire early. She played with the gaslights for awhile, wishing her father would have the system installed in their London home.

+ + +

“We must stop by the Great Pump-Room and sign the reception book,” Lord Beaufort said.

He walked with Jane on his elbow. Kate followed a few steps behind with Isabel, Miss Pierce bringing up the rear. The newly-weds had slept in and breakfasted late, leaving Kate impatient to get outside into what appeared to be the start of a beautiful day.

“Signing in lets the Master of Ceremonies know we’re here,” Lord Beaufort continued, “and I can see who else is currently visiting and what events might be planned.”

“How quaint!” Jane tittered. “Everyone does this? All the visitors?”

“They used to… but it’s falling out of fashion. I’m told many of our class don’t bother with the reception book anymore – if they want privacy, or are only visiting briefly, or… whatever. When I was young, all the best of society were here for the winter season attending the dress and fancy balls. Checking the reception book daily proved necessary to determine which families to call upon, and precedence for various aristocratic events. Now, the place is full of the middle class of people.”

“The buildings are beautiful,” Jane said as they turned a corner and a clear view of Bath Abbey presented itself. “But if the untitled are starting to fill the town, it will certainly suffer.”

“Well… they are the best of the middle class – wealthy and privileged. And you never know what rascal might be made a peer. A nobody whose father wore rags but made a fortune by cotton-spinning or coal-mining could one day occupy a seat in the House of Lords.”

They strolled around the abbey and neared the Great Pump-Room, entering an impressive hall through the front doors. A large number of elderly infirm ladies and gentlemen were being driven by servants in an astonishing variety of wheeled chairs. The sound of a band playing popular tunes came to them in waves as an inner door repeatedly opened and closed. The ladies stood together by a window while Lord Beaufort signed the reception book and leafed through a few pages.
“Let’s have a look, shall we?” Jane said to Kate, and strode for the pump-room door.

Kate followed while Isabel and Miss Pierce remained in the hall. Upon entering the pump-room the music and conversation reached an overwhelming level, crowds of people in animated discussions, many quaffing water from decidedly yellow stained glass tumblers. Kate didn’t recognise anyone, and turned her attention to the décor: pairs of crystal girandoles on the sideboards, Corinthian pillars, a statue of Beau Nash, paintings of flowers, birds, shells, and fossils. Lord Beaufort joined them.

“God’s wounds!” he exclaimed. “This is a bit much!” He led them past their maids and outside, then addressed his wife. “There’s a literary luncheon this afternoon at the Upper Assembly Rooms, and a ball tonight at the Royal. Would you like to attend?”

“If I have suitable dress,” Jane replied coyly. “What is the Royal? Another assembly room?”

“A theatre. My father was a member of the tontine that built it. Along with the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, and others.”

“Tontine?” Kate asked, unfamiliar with the process.

“The subscribers all bought shares at two hundred pounds each. They then received an income on that share of three per cent per annum, and free admission to all performances at the theatre once it was built. As the shareholders passed away, their investment was shared amongst the surviving members of the tontine, with the last survivor getting it all.”

“Who was that?”

“Hmm… I cannot say. It’s of no matter – it certainly wasn’t Father. I remember attending many plays and balls at the Royal. What would you like to do, Katelyn? You may join us, if you wish. However, you would have sit at the back of the ball with the other youngsters.”

The interior of the Theatre Royal, Bath, circa 1820, depicting a lively fancy dress ball.

The interior of the Theatre Royal, Bath, circa 1820, depicting a lively fancy dress ball.

Kate thought a moment, briefly considering the weather, the age of the people who would attend a literary review, her wardrobe in regards to evening dress… then glanced at Isabel and Miss Pierce who were standing silently a few steps away. “We may not enjoy too many days this nice,” she started off, gauging reactions from the faces of her father and stepmother. “I told Isabel about Sydney Gardens and would like to spend the afternoon there. Lydia –” she stopped short upon seeing a scowl and quick shake of the head from Jane. “Pierce could join us,” Kate amended and continued, “if you can manage without her service, Mother, and she is interested.”

“I told you,” Jane said with emphasis, “you may call me, Mama.”

“And the ball?” Lord Beaufort asked.

“I think I’ll forgo the pleasure.” Kate performed a tiny shrug. “I require dance lessons before I start attending anything but country balls.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Lord Beaufort said, but tilted his head to Jane. “Are you agreeable, my dear?”

“Of course,” Jane replied lightly. “But I shall require Pierce this evening to help me dress for the ball.”

“Miss Pierce?” Lord Beaufort prompted with an encouraging smile.

Kate had noticed her stepmother’s maid, despite her low position, often received kind consideration from men, no matter their rank. Indeed, it was similar to the attention Kate received herself, the difference being the guarded delivery due to her position in the aristocracy; her clothing, accessories, and the accompaniment of a maid, her father, or footmen and carriage attendants, usually proclaiming her eminent position to all.

“My lord?” Miss Pierce said softly with lowered eyes and a small curtsey.

Kate knew both the maids heard what was discussed, but Miss Pierce acted as though she perceived nothing of the plans, feinting innocence of eavesdropping. Kate reiterated the itinerary and invitation to explore Sydney Gardens. Miss Pierce accepted with another graceful curtsey. They walked as a group back to the house then separated, Kate and the maids continuing up Great Pulteney Street. Kate and Isabel hooked elbows and talked cheerily of Bath and the attractions as they approached the Sydney Hotel, a residential inn and water cure establishment that served as the entrance to the garden; the tunes of an orchestra reached beyond the hedges and walls.

“A man is following us,” Miss Pierce said from behind them in a low voice.

Kate and Isabel spun abruptly and peered back at their route; the pavement and rows of uniform houses lining the street.

“What man?” Kate demanded, seeing only couples, friends, and families, strolling or gathered together in the sunshine. Did Father needlessly send a male servant to watch over us? “A footman?”

“No, my lady,” Miss Pierce murmured, not turning around and standing very still. “He’s all in black, I think.”

“Mourning dress?” Kate asked, craning her neck. She could see what looked like an extended family getting ready to enter carriages, everyone wearing black except for white veils, hoods, and ribbons. “There is a funeral party about half way along the street. I think a young girl must have died. They’re bedecked in white gauze and love ribbons.”

“Perhaps he’s with them,” Miss Pierce said doubtfully, “but I didn’t notice any white – no white veil tied on his top hat.”

“A short man?” Isabel suggested. “Or a fat man with grey whiskers?”

“No. He’s tall and thin.”

“How tall?” Kate asked “Like a police constable? Or a guardsman?”

“Yes, my lady. I daresay a six footer.”

“I see no one of that description.” Kate started to scheme, and thought herself very clever. “I have an idea.” She led the maids to the hotel while slipping a little coin purse from her gaily coloured satin reticule. “A table in the garden,” she instructed a doorman, attempting an authoritative voice and handing him a sixpence.

“Yes, Miss!” He tipped his hat. “This way, if you please.”

He led them through to the back of the hotel where dozens of well dressed ladies, gentlemen, and a few children, were engaged in al fresco dining, conversation, and appreciation of the string orchestra (which played from a platform at the rear of the building). Kate requested a table to one side of the backyard, at the far end of a crescent shaped row of dining stalls, and ordered tea and sweets. They sat at a small round table and arranged their flounced skirts and capes, Kate in fur trimmed plush velvet with lavish embroidery, the maids in plain velvet and fine wool.

This postcard from 1836 nicely illustrates the crescent of dining stalls that once existed at the rear of the Sydney Hotel (Holburne Museum).

This postcard from 1836 nicely illustrates a summer fair and the crescent of dining stalls that once existed on each side at the rear of the Sydney Hotel (now the Holburne Museum).

“From here,” Kate whispered, restlessly arranging the silken tassels on her reticule, “we may observe anyone entering the gardens.” She felt excited at the possibility of a confrontation. “We’re perfectly safe amongst all these people. We have set an ambuscade for our purser.”

“Who could it be?” Isabel wondered. “A man who knows one of us?”

“Possibly.” Kate thought a moment. “Everyone who attended the wedding knows we were coming here after.” She considered Miss Pierce, her elegant and demure demeanour. “Lydia, do you have any idea who this man might be? A former paramour?”

“Indeed, no, my lady,” Miss Pierce said firmly, only a brief flash of shock displayed by her large heavily lidded eyes.

“Are you certain you saw someone?”

“I am not subject to hallucinations, my lady. I’m six and twenty and have some experience in these matters. Men can be smitten at a glance, and then aggressive and demanding. He is probably a wealthy and idle man who took a fancy to… one or all of us. A dissolute rake with fantasies of rough seduction.”

Kate, initially a trifle embarrassed by her own rather bold suggestion of a past and perhaps secret lover, shuddered at Miss Pierce’s ensuing candour and did not pursue the subject. It may have been the first time Kate had heard the maid string more than a couple short sentences together. She wondered what man or men Miss Pierce had previously encountered to lead to such revelations. Their refreshments arrived. Glad for a distraction, Kate produced her purse again and gave the serving girl half crown. The girl smiled and scampered away.

“That was too much!” Isabel hissed at Kate.

“Yes,” Kate agreed, “but this way we may occupy the table for as long as we like, and can expect our pot to be freshened frequently. The water cools quickly outside in a breeze.”

After a few minutes, Isabel poured the tea for them. They sipped in silence and scrutinized every man who passed by. There were tall men, and a couple men in black, but no one who met the full criteria. At one point, a trio of stylishly attired young gallants (in shades of pink and grey, contrasted by dark stripes and tartan waistcoats) approached with confident smiles, and asked politely if they might join them, but Isabel quickly sent them on their way. After a fruitless hour, with many cakes, tarts, and biscuits consumed, washed down by countless cups of tea, Kate lost patience.

“Enough of this,” she said. “Let’s explore.”

They followed a serpentine gravel lane, passing some couples brandishing battledores and banging a scarlet-feathered shuttlecock back and forth, then came upon a set of swings. Kate and Isabel each took a seat and swung lazily while Miss Pierce stood like a sentinel. The trio of gallants reappeared, sat on a bench not far away, and made no secret of watching them. Kate stared at one of the men for a moment, his blonde hair and bright smile, and recalled the under-gardener she had once seen naked, in the throes of passion with the village farrier’s eldest daughter. The man clearly sensed her attention, stood, and touched the silver knob of his delicate cane to the brim of his shiny grey top hat. She shook from her reverie and leapt from the swing.

“My goodness, those are tight inexpressibles,” Isabel whispered as they marched away. “He’s more than a little interested in you!”

“Nonsense!” Kate exclaimed, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the attention. “He was acknowledging you or Lydia.”

“Impertinent fellows,” Miss Pierce said mildly.

They promenaded by a stone pavilion with a thatched roof and stopped on a bridge over the deep rail cutting.

“The navvies tore down the sham castle while digging the ditch for the Great Western Railway,” Kate said, acting as guide. “And a corner of the labyrinth and the grotto was lost. Now it’s all gone. Originally, the railway was supposed to go underground through here.”

“Why do you know so much about it, my lady?”

“My father told me. He helped push the bill through the House of Lords. He promised me this garden wouldn’t be spoiled by the construction.”

“It has been done with taste and care,” Miss Pierce said quietly. “The cutting doesn’t impact the charm of the place.”

“I suppose,” Kate allowed begrudgingly, “but it was more fun before. Everyone loved it. Let’s carry on.”

They strolled to a cast iron bridge over the canal and looked at the swans. Kites flew high over the centre of the garden, and sparrows flitted about on the breeze.

“There!” Miss Pierce said abruptly and pointed.

Kate instinctively followed the direction indicated and scanned the distance. For a fleeting moment, a tall thin man in black, darted from a shadow to the shelter of a hedge. He wasn’t running, but moved with a lightning step through a band of sunlight. Without hesitating, Kate gathered her skirts and went in pursuit.

“My lady!” the maids called in chorus.

Kate sprinted back over the rail bridge, across a small park, and through a gap in a hedge, ignoring the few people she passed. She slowed to assess the situation, then ran towards an octagon shaped temple. She rounded the structure while trying to look in every open area. The man was nowhere to be seen. Kate stopped and took a few calming breaths. Damn, I thought I’d catch the scoundrel. Where is Isabel? Feeling hot, she took off her heavy velvet bonnet and wandered around the temple. Isabel came bustling up to her at a jog.

“Kate!” she gasped. “My lady… you run like the wind! You shouldn’t have hared off like that!”

“But we could have caught him!”

“And then what? Caught him for what purpose?”

“I… he… to be arrested… for following us, and…” Kate suddenly felt foolish and fiddled with the silk ribbon of her bonnet. I don’t know what I’m doing. “He’s gone, anyway.”

Miss Pierce strode up to them in a decorous fashion.

“You cannot run in those French boots?” Kate asked derisively.

“No, my lady, not very well. Did you get a decent look at the man?”

“Not his face. He vanished. But there’s no doubt now that he was following us – I saw him clearly. Did you see him, Isabel?”

She shook her head. “Maybe a shadow?”

“He was as Lydia described – a six footer and thin.” Kate pictured him in her mind’s eye. “His top hat was tall with a straight shaft. He had a white shirt and black cravat.”

“Perhaps one of the watchman could identify this man?” Miss Pierce suggested. “He may have proved a nuisance before?”

“That’s an idea,” Kate agreed. “Let’s go back to the hotel.”

“We’re done with exploring, then?” Isabel asked.

“We are,” Kate confirmed. “We may come back another day.” She pulled on her bonnet, unruly hair falling around her face. “I require a necessarium – too much tea!”

Kate walked between the maids down the centre lane of the garden, searching left and right as they went. The three gallants swaggered from a pavilion and fell into step behind them. Isabel rounded on the men, causing them to halt with startled expressions.

“Did any of you see a tall man in black following us?” she barked.

“She means covertly following us,” Kate added, “not openly like you are, however rude.”

Stylishly attired gentlemen, fashion plates, 1844 - 48.

Stylishly attired gentlemen, fashion plates, 1844 – 48.

The blonde haired man who had saluted Kate earlier, blushed and smiled. “Forgive us.” He bowed. “You ladies are such outstanding examples of womanhood that we are uncontrollably–

“No blather!” Isabel cut him off. “Answer the question.”

The men looked at each other with raised eyebrows. One shrugged helplessly.

“I’m sorry,” the blonde man said, “we didn’t notice anyone following you. However… there are blackguards everywhere.” He grandly removed his top hat and bowed again. “Let me offer our protection as escorts to your domiciles. We will ensure your safety.”

“We do not require an escort,” Kate said firmly. “Do not follow us any farther.”

“This young lady is of noble rank,” Isabel hissed. “You are not known to her. Now go away!”

“I knew it!” one of the men declared. “A lady of title, I said. Definitely a distinguished lady. Please, do us the honour of –”

“No!” Isabel bawled. “Go away!”

Kate and the maids spun on their heels and marched off, leaving the gallants crestfallen. Kate noticed Miss Pierce had remained silent with downcast eyes in the presence of the men.

“Are you quite all right, Lydia?” she asked.

“Yes, my lady. I’m just thinking, perhaps those gentlemen hired the man in black, so they could come to our rescue.”

“Oh! How devious!” Kate was shocked at the thought. “Is that sort of ruse common? Were you ever tricked in such a way?”

Miss Pierce didn’t immediately reply. She lowered her head and kneaded her kid-skin gloves. “No,” she said, just above a whisper, “but I know these, ah… these entanglements do occur.”

“How wretched!” Kate spat.

They proceeded to the hotel, made use of the ladies’ room, then approached a watchman at the front gate. Isabel explained what had happened. He appeared somewhat interested and apologised for any upset or inconvenience suffered. He didn’t remember seeing a tall man in black, or know of any troublemakers recently dogging ladies in the gardens.

Kate, Isabel, and Miss Pierce, hooked elbows and walked down Great Pulteney Street to their lodgings in Laura Place, a safe little determined troop, each looking back occasionally for any pursuers; of which, there were none.

 



 

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