Quantock Hall, early December 1848
“Good morning, Mr. Smythe.” Kate swept happily into the warm library, sunlight pouring in the windows. She smiled at the elderly butler and stepped towards a bookshelf. “How are you?”
“Troubled, my lady.” Smythe stood by Earl Beaufort’s desk, hands clasped and trembling. “There should be a purse here, lest funds be needed whilst Lord Beaufort is away. It’s missing. Have you seen it?”
“Oh! No! I…” Kate froze in her tracks, guts plummeting, mind whirling. Sasha stole it?! This is my fault. I’ll have to–
Kate snapped her mouth shut and blinked. “Could the purse be, misplaced?” She strode to the desk, scanning the various items scattered on the surface. “Perhaps in a drawer?”
“It was here the morning your parents set out for Brocket Hall,” Smythe replied, pointing to a vacant spot of polished walnut. “It’s gone. One of the staff must have taken it.” He slowly shook his head and muttered, “Troubling, very troubling.”
“Indeed!” Kate felt waves of heat start rolling through her clothing. The purse was there in the morning a week ago, and Sasha was here that night – he took it! Grr… must control myself. She sat at the desk and uselessly started opening drawers. “None of the servants would steal from my father!” Kate said, rather too angrily. “Who do you suspect?”
“There is the odd girl, who came from London. She is the most recent addition to–”
“Pixie?! Never!” Kate’s anger turned to fear. “Mr. Smythe, I beg you, do not mention this missing purse to a soul. Ah! Now I remember… I took the purse. It’s dark red with a silver clasp?”
“No, my lady, brown with brass fittings. Quite plain.”
“That’s right! Of course. It’s in my room.” Kate sprang to her feet. “I noticed the leather needed oiling. Do you require funds now?”
“Yes, my lady. Mr. Nettles has asked for a settling of the autumn account. And he is purchasing material for repairs on the field contraptions.”
“The ploughs and harrows and such?”
“One and ten, my lady.”
“I’ll fetch it. Meet me in the front hall.” Kate strode calmly from the room, then scurried upon entering the hallway, slippers skidding on the flagstones. She almost fell during the turn to mount the backstairs, and briefly noticed the blacksmith’s boy, cap in hand, waiting by the door. One and ten, one and ten… do I have that much? Kate burst through the door of her dressing room, startling her maid.
“My lady!” Isabel gasped. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Kate lied, dashing into her bedroom. She snatched a little wooden treasure chest from a dresser and dumped the contents onto her fancy needlework bedspread.
Isabel watched from the doorway with raised eyebrows and a frown. “Nothing? You are as red as a rose.”
“One should never stand on a threshold,” Kate snapped, then took a breath and regretted her tone. “Let me tend to this task, then we’ll talk.” She started counting coins. Two crowns, five half crowns – that’s a good start. Kate made a pile of shillings, and then grabbed some sixpence and finally a tuppence and four pennies to complete the total amount. A moment later, having carefully glided down the front stairs with as much poise as she could muster, Kate handed the handful of coins to Smythe.
“The purse, my lady?” Smythe asked.
“Yes, yes,” Kate replied nonchalantly while ascending the stairs. “I’ll place it on my father’s desk once the oil is properly applied.” She hurried to her dressing room, closed the door, took Isabel by the hand, led her to an embroidered Turkish sofa, perched there on, and in hushed tones related the unfolding debacle.
“Kate?!” Isabel burst, her round blue eyes popping. “Why did you–”
“Shush! Shush!” Kate waved her hands frantically. “Keep your voice down!”
Isabel took a deep breath. “I knew nothing good would come from your blasphemous plans with those Gypsies.”
“Only Sasha is a scoundrel,” Kate retorted, albeit weakly, feeling chastised.
“What are you going to do?”
“I must get the purse! We have to–”
“Oooh no! We are not going after the Gypsies. They’re gone.”
“I heard talk a few days ago. They’ve packed up and moved on. The day of that little snowfall.”
“Ods zounds!” Kate collapsed onto the sofa, closing her eyes. Now what do I do? This is a bungling muddle to out-bungle all muddles! “I remember Grandpa Agafya telling me they would probably winter in the south of Devonshire, or Cornwall.”
“We certainly can’t go racing through the countryside searching for travellers!”
“No…” Kate sighed. I must do something. What if… “Isabel, put on your town dress and winter cape, we’re going to Taunton!”
A little over an hour later, Kate, Isabel, and Miss Nestor, stood in front of Quantock Hall as a coachman brought a carriage around the manor to collect them. When Kate told her governess of a plan to go to Taunton to visit some shops, Miss Nestor insisted on accompanying her lady, to ensure safe passage, not that the tiny woman could ever serve as much protection; however, her puritan supervision would staunch any scandalous gossip. Kate struggled with how to carry out her plan with Miss Nestor in tow, but decided to simply explain as little as possible while making calls in town and only if necessary relating the entire tale of woe.
Wade, the young thin footman, bundled up in an over-sized wool frock coat and mittens, helped Kate and the ladies into the carriage, then climbed on the back to act as an attendant.
“If the roads are clear we will be there before noon,” Kate declared as they settled into the seats. “We’ll spend no more than two hours in town, then be home around sunset.”
“Whilst we go, we will continue your studies,” Miss Nestor said, drawing a folder from her satchel. “Science, or languages?”
The coachman guided the team into the heart of Taunton, coming to a halt beside the marketplace, surrounded by soot-covered red brick and stone buildings. Kate jumped clear and the ladies climbed down onto the cobblestones then shook out their flannel petticoats and the creases from their skirts, Wade assisting where appropriate. High white clouds filled the sky, a chill breeze blowing from the east.
“You may wait on the meadow by the castle,” Kate told the coachman. “We will be at least an hour. Unhitch the team and blanket them. They may water by the river if needed.”
“Very gud, muh lawdy.” The coachman tipped his top hat and reined the team into a slow turn, heading back north.
“We’ll go to my bootmaker in Magdalen Street,” Kate said, pointing with her white fur muff and leading the way. “Then brave the hurly-burly of East Street.” Standing as tall as an average man, in a plush dark green velvet walking suit and glossy white satin hooded cape trimmed with ermine, Kate’s outfit and refined comportment proclaimed her as wealthy gentry to the townsfolk; they parted to allow clear passage for Kate and her servants.
“Who do you want to visit on East, my lady?” Miss Nestor asked, quick-stepping to keep up in her heavy black wool travelling suit and beaver bonnet. “A glover?”
“Yes,” Kate replied, without giving it much thought. “A few shops perhaps.”
They entered the bootmakers premise with the tinkle of a bell, Wade waiting outside.
“Lady Kate?” a deep voice exclaimed from the back of the shop. A small man in a leather apron appeared. “Lady Kate, hello! Are you here for your red boots?”
“Good day, Mr. Ashton. Indeed. Are they ready?”
“They are. And his Lordship’s new hunt boots. Let me box them for you.”
A few minutes later Kate and the ladies were outside again, Wade now encumbered by boxes tied shut with string. They made their way to busy East Street, and paused at the store fronts.
“I want to go in there,” Kate said, indicating a curiosity shop across the street in a sagging half-timber building, decaying daub falling from the wattle, a jumble of used items displayed in the window. “Miss Nestor, please wait here with Wade.”
“My lady!” Miss Nestor exclaimed. “You cannot enter such a disreputable establishment!”
“Only for a moment,” Kate replied, already darting out between the carriages, Isabel running with her. “We will return in a flash!” She peeked back upon reaching the shop door, noting Miss Nestor’s visage of outrage. Hmm, I’ll have to calm her somehow… later…
Upon entering the dimly lit smoke-filled shop, they were affronted with piles of odd footwear, dirty clothing, books, pots and tools, and the stink of mildew. A tall thin man in a grey smock rose up behind a counter.
“Ladies?” he rasped, puffing on a pipe.
“Good day,” Kate said, trying to sound businesslike, firm and terse. “We are in need of a common purse, brown leather, mounted with brass fittings.”
The man shuffled to a cabinet and slid out a tray, placing it on the counter. Kate saw a collection of worn purses, most of which she considered rubbish, but three looked like reasonable replacements for the stolen item.
“This one,” Kate said, handing her muff to Isabel, then picking up the best brown leather purse and trying the clasp. “How much?”
“Fer thee, yer ‘ighness,” the man shrugged and coughed. “I say… ‘alf crown.”
“What?!” Isabel practically screamed. “Half a bob more like!” She stepped forward, handing back the muff and elbowing Kate aside.
“Arr, ya brung thy terrier wi’ thee,” the man said to Kate and chuckled. He bent forward, fixed bloodshot eyes on Isabel. “Bob an’ six.”
“Bob and two.”
“Bob an’ tree.”
“Done,” Isabel spat. She turned to Kate. “That’s a shilling and thruppence, my lady”
“Wait,” Kate said. “How much would you give me for these?” She pulled a bundle of ribbons from her muff and handed them over.
The man fingered the ribbons, spreading out a few exquisite watered-silk examples on the counter. “Ha’penny each,” he grunted.
“And for these?” Kate slipped two tortoiseshell combs from a hidden skirt pocket and placed them on the counter.
The man snatched up the finer of the two and appraised the gold filigree work on the handle. Kate glanced sidelong through the yellowed window and saw Miss Nestor and Wade peering in.
“Purse for this, straight trade?” the man suggested.
“Robbery!” Isabel yelled, accented with outrage. “My lady, this man is a thief! He is cheating you!”
“All righ’, All righ’…” the man mumbled. “Calm thyself, woman. ‘Ow ’bout the purse, an’ a crown?”
“He’s wasting our time,” Isabel said, nimbly taking the comb from the man and gathering up the other comb and ribbons.
“Wait,” the man said.
“Wait,” Kate agreed. We have to make a deal! She gave Isabel a pleading look, and felt tears in her eyes, from worry and smoke.
“Yes, wait,” Isabel said with a small nod. “Wait outside my lady. Let me deal with this rogue.”
Kate stepped out and stood between Miss Nestor and Wade. She drew a handkerchief from her muff and dabbed her eyes.
“What is this about, my lady?” Miss Nestor asked softly. “What’s wrong?”
Kate simply shook her head and took a quick calming breath, then raised her chin and watched the traffic.
“Lady Kate,” a male voice said from along the street.
Kate slowly turned. What now? She spied two young gentlemen approaching, both dressed in high fashion, although one wore mourning attire.
Vere Poulett, the Viscount Hinton, the son of Earl Poulett, strode to Kate with a grin, sweeping off his shiny grey top hat and bowing. “What a pleasure to see you,” he said.
“Lord Hinton.” Kate curtsied. “How do you do?” As children of earls, it was perfectly acceptable for Kate to be approached by this young man, and for her to acknowledge him. Kate knew Vere since childhood, and when they had last met in August he proved extremely attentive. This was not true of his friend, who hung back a few paces.
“May I introduce Mr. Wroth Lethbridge, of Sandhill Park, my lady?” Viscount Hinton asked.
“You may.” Kate adjusted her hood back, showing off her lustrous braids, and nodded towards the stocky young man of perhaps twenty years. She was aware of Sandhill Park, near Bishops Lydeard, and of the death of the old baronet, a man her father knew from his time in government. After the introduction, Kate said, “I am sorry for the loss of your grandfather, sir.”
“Thank you, my lady. He will be missed.”
“My lady! Look what–” Isabel froze, having burst out of the shop door.
The gentlemen blinked and stepped back, taking in Isabel and the façade of the grimy shop. Isabel shifted her weight and sort of hid behind Wade.
Blast! This doesn’t look good. Quick, move on. “My maid,” Kate said, trying to sound casual. “A good day to you, gentlemen.” Kate perfunctorily curtsied and started along the pavement.
“Lady Kate!” Vere called after her. “Will you not join us for some refreshment?”
“I will not,” Kate replied coldly. “I have an appointment. Now, I said good day.” She left Vere and Wroth in her wake, the servants following as best they could. Kate hoped she wasn’t too rude and hurried without pause until reaching the glover’s shop and entered.
Isabel followed her in and handed over the purse, heavy with coin.
“Well done,” Kate whispered, smiled, and slipped the purse into her muff.
Miss Nestor entered. The governess glared sharply at Isabel, then Kate, then the approaching shopkeeper. “My lady has an appointment, Mr. Geary.”
“She does? She does!” The glover nodded. “What can I help you with today, my lady?”
Kate thought fast, and asked Isabel to fetch her new boots from Wade, then ordered two pairs of gloves to match in the same dark red shade. Satisfied with the outcome of their journey, Kate led them to the castle and found their carriage. The coachman quickly hitched up the team and they were on their way back to Quantock Hall as light snow began to swirl. After pushing back her hood and playing with her braids a moment, Kate peeped up at Miss Nestor to find the woman studying her with pursed lips.
“An explanation, my lady,” Miss Nestor said.
“Ah, quite…” Kate turned to Isabel.
“Don’t look to me!” Isabel swivelled and gazed out a window.
And so, with much smoothing and editing, Kate related the story of how her father’s purse had been stolen from the library. Miss Nestor was scandalized but, after some reflection, praised Kate for her intrepid actions, along with much lecturing about honestly and the path to righteousness.
“You will have to relate all this to Lord Beaufort,” Miss Nestor said. “Your parents will probably be home in a few days.”
“Yes.” Kate nodded vigorously. “Please don’t say anything about any of this. I will discuss it with my father at an opportune moment. You know how much I’m loath to disappoint or worry him.”
“Very well, my lady. I’ll expect you to do what is best.”
“Good morning!” Kate swept into the warm library, sunlight pouring in the windows. She smiled at her father and stepped towards a bookshelf. “You arrived very late. Did you sleep well?”
“Very well,” Earl Beaufort replied. “It was late. Jane is still abed. Glad to be home. Looking forward to breakfast. How are you this morning?”
“Fine, father. I’m borrowing a book.” Kate placed her hand on an Ainswoth novel about Jack Sheppard. She spun around, grinning, and stepped into a square of sunlight, satin outfit shimmering. “Don’t we always look forward to breakfast?”
“Ha ha, we do indeed!” Earl Beaufort rose from his desk. “We should make our way to the dining room.”
“Let’s!” Everything is fine!
“We need to talk about this purse.”
“Aah…” Kate felt her stomach fill with dread. “You noticed it’s different?”
“No, it’s just a common purse.”
“And?” He hasn’t noticed! It’s fine! “What?”
“Why is there more coin in the purse now than when I left it?”