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Another Midsummer Steeplechase

Somersetshire, 21 June 1848

Hoof beats thundered all around. Kate glanced through her mud spattered veil over a shoulder. Four… no, six riders in close pursuit. Their mounts look tired. A large man on a superb chestnut stallion rode to her side. I recognise him and his horse from last year. I think they won. He’ll soon be making a move. Ahead were five racers, throwing up clumps of dirt, the surface of the road compromised by overnight torrents of rain. Everything is going as planned. I’m in good position. There’s that lane on the right. Almost time to leave the road!

The previous day Kate had scouted the route several times and decided upon a bold tactic. By cutting from the pack early and galloping across a pasture no one else ever thought to enter, she would be taking a straighter path to Bicknoller and save precious seconds. It meant an extra jump through a thick hedgerow… but Kate had discovered an opening. She had slyly stayed with the pack on the way to Crowcombe, as to not reveal the shortcut, keeping it a secret for the return half of the race.

“All right, Misty?” Kate needlessly whispered to her hunter. The dapple-grey mare fast cantered, ready to gallop whenever the signal might come from her mistress. Kate rocked her hips in the saddle, keeping her hands steady, legs squeezed, and heels low. Now! Kate alerted Misty slightly with her right hand, tapped once with her right heel, then applied pressure with both heels and gathered the reins. The mare raised her head, turned, then leapt over the blackberry brambles into the unknown beyond. Kate let the reins go long for a moment as they landed in the soft turf, then gathered them again. “Ha, ha!” Kate felt elated and Misty sprang into a gallop. Did anyone follow us? No… we’re alone. They raced across a muddy pasture to the hedgerow and plunged through, clearing the stone wall. Kate looked left, reining back to a canter, and watched the bobbing heads of horses and upper halves of men cantering upon the road. Some would undoubtedly remain on the road to Bicknoller, their mounts too weary for more jumps, but others would soon be in her pursuit. She watched as seconds later men started jumping the brambles and entering the field. A few yelled out exclamations of awe or surprise upon spying Kate in their lead.

“Hurrah, Lady Kate! Hurrah!”

Kate didn’t look back but smiled, knowing it must be Hugh Wansbrough cheering her on. All the participants would surely gallop across the broad field upon which they now raced. The pack reformed well off to Kate’s left, heading for the most challenging of jumps; over a pair of hedgerows with a narrow lane between them. Kate kicked up to a gallop and aimed straight for an open gateway, crossed the lane, and cleared a single hedgerow, Misty surging powerfully. Scanning to her left, Kate saw a racer tumble through the brambles, but several participants were over and galloping for the next hurtle. Three jumps to go!

A country steeplechase with several riders taking a tumble, circa 1840.

Kate’s chosen route stayed close to the edge of the field, and she needed to traverse a stream with a hedge beside it. She urged Misty to the spot they jumped over yesterday… then jerked upright and reined back. Oh, no! The stream at this corner of the field had swollen from the overnight rains and spilled its bank. Misty splashed bravely into the water, ploughing towards the obstacle without direction from her mistress. Kate, admittedly unprepared and reacting poorly, reduced to a passenger, watched with dread as her hunter stumbled into the stream, then recovered and leapt through the hedge with a jarring thump. Kate pitched forward, briefly grasping her horses neck, then whipped back as a startled Misty kicked and reared.

“Hush, girl,” Kate soothed, sounding calmer than she felt. “Easy now.”

All was not lost. Kate suspected her lead had vanished, but not by much and, without urging, Misty raced for the next hurtle. Ah! Brilliant animal! Regaining control of herself and the reins, Kate crossed a low stone wall and aimed for her favoured space to clear the remaining obstacle; a combination of brambles with scattered stones and a ditch. Spectators cheered as the racers entered the last field and galloped for Saint George’s Church. Kate saw her maid, Isabel, standing on a hillock and waving, her step-mother’s maid, Miss Lydia Pierce, beside her, and several young men around them. The angle of the pack and Kate’s line quickly closed together. She eased into fourth place and let Misty loose to pursue Hugh on his bay stallion. Directly in front of Hugh rode the large man on his chestnut stallion, and in the lead a sinewy farmhand on a tall black mare. Kate judged all the mounts as strong, with little or no chance of her overtaking them. She glanced back and counted two participants close behind, but felt confident in staying ahead of them. They entered the village to loud cheers and barking dogs. In some regards, Kate considered this the most frightening and dangerous portion of the race, and she inwardly cringed as red sandstone walls ran like a blur in her periphery and people waved and whooped. She started reining back while passing the church, then dropped to a walk and circled beyond the other participants who had halted between the churchyard wall and a cottage. A moment later a pack of winded and lathered mounts came pounding up the lane, followed by the mass of spectators. Children jumped and cheered, men yelled and shook hands.

Kate, feeling thrilled but also disappointed, turned Misty away from the crowd and walked her to the small gate at the north corner of the churchyard. “We need some quiet, don’t we, girl.” The mare skipped a few times, and tossed her head. “Easy now. The race is over. You ran perfectly.” In the cool leafy shade by the gate, Kate dismounted, hugged Misty around the neck, then loosened her girth and slid the stirrups up the leathers. “We should hurry.” Kate heard the rollicking crowd moving from the lane to the south end of the churchyard. She quickly lifted her veil and draped it over her hat, flicked the worst of the dirt clods off her jacket, then led Misty along the path to the church.

“Lady Kate,” Hugh called as he wove through the gravestones to meet her and disturbed the grazing sheep. “My compliments. You rode like the wind.”

“You, as well, Mr. Wansbrough. How have you been?” Kate had spent some time with Hugh during a visit to Bath a few months previously and discussions turned somewhat earnest, with the young gentleman stating his love for her in an awkward confession. She liked Hugh, but held some misgivings about his behaviour. “Happy Birthday!” Kate wanted to keep things light and friendly, and knew he had just reached twenty years of age.

“Thank you.” He removed his top hat and bowed, then froze upon noticing the mud.

Kate chuckled at his concern. “Your face is all spattered.”

“Hmm…” Hugh made a comical cross-eyed frown, then produced a handkerchief and smeared the grime from his nose and cheeks. “Am I improved?” He grinned.

“Here.” Kate took his cloth and daubed a few particularly grubby spots.

Hugh leaned close and lowered his face. When Kate looked from the smears to his eyes, she noticed him staring intently into her eyes.

“That will do.” She turned away. This is entirely too intimate. “I should find my parents.” Kate started along the path again.

“May I accompany you? I’d like to pay my respects. I didn’t approach you before the race because you were with them, and your father didn’t acknowledge me.”

“We had little time to say hello to anyone. My step-mother insisted on coming by carriage, and I had to ride with them. I thought we might be late, and miss the start of the race.”

“I observed how quickly you registered and took your place. And… how you’re clothed.”

“Do you like my costume?” Oh… don’t sound insecure. “I believe this habit is most appropriate for a steeplechase.”

“It is killer,” Hugh said with feeling. “You are dressed to death, my lady!”

Kate felt vindicated by his slang enthusiasm. She peered down briefly at her frilly white bodice, long tight-waisted green velvet jacket, buckskin riding trousers showing at her knees, and tall shiny black boots. Kate loved this outfit; even the mud speckling looked good. Her step-mother, Jane, had railed against any girl appearing in such attire, except perhaps for a fancy-dress ball, which made wearing it all the more satisfying. The issue of Kate riding astride instead of side-saddle, which Jane had only learned of that morning, briefly reduced the lady to a quivering incoherent lunatic.

“Thank you,” Kate said, giving Hugh a bright smile. “You look splendid.” And she genuinely meant her words, appreciating his black riding suit, tall lean frame, wavy dark brown hair, and light blue eyes.

“Thank you, my lady.” Hugh theatrically dusted a sleeve and adjusted his cravat. “Shall my groom tend to your hunter?” he asked as they neared the crowd forming beside the church.

“Is he at hand?”

“Yes, just there.” Hugh waved to a boy standing by the wooden water troughs set out for the horses behind the church.

The boy ran to them and took control of Misty, leading her to the troughs. Kate and Hugh then made their way through the edge of the crowd, who were gathering around the beverage tables. They both accepted congratulations from some of the other participants and spectators. The men were boisterous and friendly with Hugh, but guarded and cautious with Kate. She understood their apprehension due to her rank and unusual attire, so simply smiled and nodded graciously. A fourth place finish still rankled, after imagining a win with her alternative route. Kate peered through the crowd and spotted her step-mother sitting in their open topped landau, her father standing in the lane talking with a young gentleman. Is that… Hugh Grosvenor?! What is he doing in Bicknoller? And here I come, with Hugh Wansbrough. Should I send him away? No… yes… no…

A landau with the roof folded down.

“Who is that with your father?” Hugh asked, as though reading Kate’s mind.

“Lord Grosvenor, eldest son of the Marquess of Westminster, and the Member of Parliament for Chester.”

“He’s in Parliament? How old is he?”

“Urm…” Kate knew the answer, but feigned nonchalance. Lord Grosvenor had made clear his age to Kate the month previously when they wandered one afternoon in Hyde Park, and his hope of marrying by the age of twenty-five. “Twenty-two, I believe.” She grew warm remembering how she had given Hugh a kiss while in Bath, similar to one she placed on Lord Grosvenor’s cheek while in London.

“Is he a friend? As a family relationship? Or your friend?”

“Both. My friend since childhood. And his siblings.” Kate peeked sidelong at Hugh and discerned the colour draining from his face, his mouth set in a firm straight line. “Would you like to get a cider or ale, or shall I introduce you.”

“Please do. I’ll fetch us drinks after.”

They passed through the gate and Kate made eye contact with her step-mother.

“Here she is!” Jane said grandly. “Costumed for a fancy-dress ball, I’m sure!” She tittered nervously. “You’ll have to forgive her breeches and boots, Lord Grosvenor.”

“Of course, of course.” Lord Grosvenor removed his top hat and stepped to Kate. “Lady Kate, you rode magnificently.”

“Lord Grosvenor.” Kate curtsied, and raked the toe of her right boot on her left spur during the recovery. Drat. Carry on. Perhaps no one noticed. “You saw the race?”

“I did. I was in the first field at the start, and standing with your parents at the end. And you looked… you look…”

“May I introduce Mr. Hugh Wansbrough?” Kate, noticing Lord Grosvenor’s wide eyes and breathlessness, took control and made introductions. “Father, you remember Mr. Wansbrough?”

After Kate reacquainted Hugh to her parents and made him known to Lord Grosvenor, Jane climbed out of the landau and they strolled as a group into the churchyard, leaving the driver and footmen behind. The villagers doffed their caps or curtsied, and made a space for the Beaufort family and friends to stand under one of the shade trees, to hear the speeches and witness the purse of ten sovereigns awarded. Isabel and Miss Pierce, who had ridden to Bicknoller in the landau, but then viewed the steeplechase from a perch outside of town, appeared from the shadows to brush Kate’s attire down with stiff brushes. Kate removed her hat and let her long front braids fall, Miss Pierce doing her best to rearrange the mass of unruly tresses. Kate watched as her parents were guided away by one of the local wealthy landowners, Mr. Sweeting, leaving Hugh and Lord Grosvenor standing together, discussing politics and business, the former rather loud and domineering, the latter quite quiet and stiff. Both men occasionally peeked back at Kate as she was tended to, and she knew they were waiting to be with her; to have a drink, talk, whatever. How do I deal with both of them at the same time? The maids finished repairing her semblance then melted back into the shadows to await instructions. Kate glided to the young men, they removed their hats and parted, so she stood between them, somewhat awkwardly. Who do I talk to first? Let one of them say something…

A young gentleman, circa 1850.

“Lord Grosvenor takes quite an interest in the merchant class, my lady,” Hugh said.

“I do indeed,” Lord Grosvenor said with a nod. “England is a land of merchants – the backbone of our modern society. Importing and exporting at a profit is the key to general wealth.”

“That’s right…” Kate said, not comprehending what Lord Grosvenor meant but remembering something Hugh had said in Bath. “I thought you were sailing to the Far East this spring for business reasons?”

“Next month,” Hugh replied. “The middle of July. Now that my father is putting all his time into paper making, I will be able to make the decisions in regards to our importing. I believe China to possess a wealth of products. I look forward to exploring the options.”

“I admit to being jealous. I’ll visit the Far East some day.”

“Yes, you voiced your desire to do so the day we visited Farleigh Castle.”

Kate’s stomach tightened at Hugh’s reference to the day they spent together, not wanting Lord Grosvenor to know, or imagine that she had some entanglement with Hugh. Lord Grosvenor’s face showed no emotion as he stared directly at Kate.

“You’ll travel to the Far East?” he asked. “How?”

“I’m not certain. On a grand tour perhaps, with my brother? We have often spoken about making such a journey – the Orient, India, Chi–

“Jack?” Lord Grosvenor interrupted with a doubtful expression and tone.

“Indeed.” Kate replied firmly with a raised chin. Why not?

“Pardon me.” Lord Grosvenor inspected his hat brim for a moment. “I confess, I don’t know Lord Shervage very well, but… do you believe he would travel great distances? Away from all his… projects?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Or with your husband?” Hugh cut in. “You might accompany a husband who intends to travel around the world?”

“Hmm… perhaps,” Kate allowed reluctantly.

“I have thought about touring India,” Lord Grosvenor murmured. “Ceylon… Burma…”

“A drink, my lady?” Hugh asked. “A drink, my lord? Ale?”

“Cider, please,” Kate said.

“Nothing for me, thank you,” Lord Grosvenor replied softly.

Hugh donned his top hat at a jaunty angle and strode off. Kate didn’t like his manner. He thinks highly of himself – very much in command. If he imagines–

“Tell me about your mare,” Hugh said, disrupting Kate’s thoughts. “Have you participated in many races?”

“No, this was our debut… and my first official steeplechase.” Let’s not mention last year. “My father purchased Misty last summer. I rode her on a hunt – side-saddle. I usually ride side-saddle,” Kate added quickly, suddenly feeling apprehensive about an unladylike representation. “You don’t… do you believe my costume is appropriate? That riding astride – a girl riding astride – is acceptable?” Why do I care about his opinion so much?

“Certainly. You look wonderful. It’s a perfect habit for a young lady to wear in a steeplechase, or a hunt, if you so choose.”

He’s starting to blush… I’m getting hot, too.

“I wish you could have seen yourself,” Hugh continued, “galloping down the lane… what a painting it would make! Lady Jane was very frightened for you.”

“She was?”

“Indeed. But she stood up in your carriage and cheered you on. We all cheered.”

“I didn’t hear. The people and the dogs were quite loud. Racing on the lane within the village is daunting. Were you frightened for me?”

“No. No fear… elation, I’d say. I love races, and seeing you… riding so well… like a breath of euphoria.”

“Ods zounds!” Now he’s truly embarrassing me. “You’re exaggerating.”

“I’m not. And your mare has tremendous strength. She would be ideal breeding stock. I have a great interest in horses. I’d like to establish a racing stable one day.”

“Where?”

“Likely on our family estate in Cheshire.”

“You’ve never mentioned anything about horses before,” Kate said, sensing a tingling inside.

“We haven’t had enough time together. There’s much I’d like to discuss with you.”

I’m sure there is… but can’t it wait a few years?

“We’ll have time this evening,” Hugh added, “and tomorrow.”

“We will?”

“I have rooms in Taunton but your father has now invited me to stay at Quantock Hall. It’s only for two nights, then I’m back to London for a fortnight before returning to Cheshire.”

“Here we are!” Hugh strode up to them with a tankard in each hand, extending one to Kate.

“Thank you.” Kate took the cider and sipped. Did Jane have something to do with this? Why would a Member of Parliament leave London before the season is over and come to Taunton? It must be to see me. I don’t–

“Well done!” “Hurrah!”

Cheers from everyone tore Kate from her thoughts. Above and beyond the crowd, standing on the steps around the ancient stone broken cross, Mr. Sweeting presented a purse to an elderly gentleman. The gentleman fished one sovereign from the purse and made a great show of bestowing it to the sinewy farmhand who had ridden the tall black mare. Applause followed, then the crowd started shifting out of the churchyard, heading to the coursing events in a field south of the village.

The Quarrel or Out of Tune by G.J. Pinwell, circa 1860, depicts the ancient cross and churchyard in Bicknoller, the Quantock Hills in the background.

“Will you wager on the hounds, my lord?” Hugh asked.

“No, I’ll be on my way.”

“And you, my lady?” Hugh turned to Kate. “May I accompany you?”

“I think not,” Kate replied, seeing her parents coming through the thinning crowd. “I shall ride home and tend to my toilette.”

“All afternoon to prepare for the ball this evening?” Hugh grinned. “May I reserve a dance?”

“Oh! No, I shan’t be at the ball. I can no longer attend as a child. I’ll not appear at any balls until I’m presented at court next season.”

“You’ve decided to come out next spring?”

“I have. Circumstances… yes.” Kate glanced from Hugh to Lord Grosvenor and back again. “I’m committed.”

“You’ll allow me to pay a call on you before I sail?” Hugh asked. “You said I could when we last spoke in Bath. I tried in March but you were gone to London.”

“As I said then, you may call on my father,” Kate clarified, “and I shall be home.”

“I’ll speak with Lord Beaufort forthwith. My lord.” Hugh bowed to Lord Grosvenor. “My lady.” He bowed to Kate.

Kate performed a small curtsey then watched Hugh plough through the crowd towards her parents.

“A determined young man,” Lord Grosvenor observed under his breath.

“Yes,” Kate agreed quietly. And bold… amusing… tall… he’ll be a wealthy merchant one day.

“Well… my carriage is outside of the village. I’ve quite a way to go before reaching your house. I look forward to seeing you later today, Lady Kate.” He bowed.

“Lord Grosvenor.” Kate curtsied, and spur-raked her right boot. Again?! Double drat.

Kate watched Lord Grosvenor walk from the churchyard and along the lane. He’s a kind man, I think. Polite… handsome… he’ll be the Marquess of Westminster one day. She rotated back and noted Hugh in conversation with her parents. I’ll avoid them. Slip through the shade and collect Misty. Kate made it to the water troughs without talking to anyone, thanked Hugh’s groom for his care, then led her horse around the church and exited the main gate. Once out on the lane she briefly waved to her parents, then pressed on without looking back or waiting for a call. She headed south, aware of a mounting block at the inn she could use to facilitate getting into the saddle without jumping. Kate replayed the morning in her head, weighing everything the young men had said, how they acted, their facial expressions during the conversations, causing her some worry. Two cheerful little girls, wearing plain clothes festooned with gaily coloured ribbons, stopped Kate as she neared the inn.

“For you, Miss,” one girl said, holding out a bouquet of wild flowers. “You’re the best racer!”

“And the prettiest,” said the other.

“With the prettiest horse.”

“And the nicest clothes!”

How adorable! “Thank you very much.” Kate crouched down to accept the flowers. “Would you like to meet my horse?”

The girls nodded vigorously.

“Her name is Misty.”

The girls stretched up to pat Misty’s nose. Misty took a large bite out of Kate’s bouquet. The girls giggled and Kate laughed.

“Goodbye Miss Steeplechaser!” “Goodbye Misty!”

Kate watched the girls skip away and disappear upon passing the corner of the inn. She let Misty eat the flowers, tightened her girth, slid the stirrups down, stepped onto the mounting block, then eased into the saddle. As Kate rode to the south end of the village she smiled brightly to everyone she passed, feeling very good about herself.

This has been a great day!

 



 

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