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Autumn Visitors

Quantock Hills, Somersetshire, late October 1848

Kate wandered through the burial ground beside St. Mary the Virgin Church in Holford. When she was a little girl, the red stone structure lay derelict, known to be haunted by a Roman Catholic priest who had refused conversion and then executed during the reign of Henry VIII; a lesser known martyr of the Reformation. Recently rebuilt and refurnished the church appeared neat and proper, but the burial markers still proved somewhat eerie, especially at this time of year as the days grew shorter and nature prepared for winter. Kate spent a few minutes considering the lichen covered gravestones, and wondered what noble knights lay beneath. She gathered the skirt of her riding habit, then untied her horse from the medieval stone cross near the front door of the church and used its base as a mounting block, taking time to drape her skirting comfortably around her hips and legs, covering her boots.

St. Mary’s Church, Holford, as it looks today from the burial ground at the back.

“Well, Misty, where shall we go now?”

Enjoying an afternoon of riding in warm dry weather after several days of cool wind, grey sky, and rain showers, Kate decided to follow the valley south of Holford on to the moor for a gallop. She revelled in the freedom and independence, no studies to do, and Misty would benefit from the exercise. Of course, Kate had often promised not to gallop or jump while alone in the hills… but as long as she was careful…

At the bottom of the valley the stream overspilled the low banks, drowning the grasses and marsh-marigold. Old mossy oaks, beech, and ash, hung over Kate as the slope rose and sides narrowed. She gently reined her hunter along the trail, the stream now racing through the narrow channel of a deep ravine. The gurgling water muted the song of a thrush, wrens, and blackcaps. Halfway up the trees became twisted, mistletoe among the branches, and more so at the top of the valley, with the red berries and dark shiny leaves of holly growing everywhere. Emerging from the forest, the moor many shades of green and brown, heather, gorse, ferns, all windswept, Kate took a minute to admire the wild beauty, adjust her seat, and give her hunter a pat on the neck.

“All right, Misty? Ready for a gallop?”

Kate heard the tinkling of sheep-bells and singing of a lark, then discerned voices. Shepherds? I’ll say hello. Maybe Jeremy is there. She envisioned the handsome young man; clear light brown eyes, short cropped hair, taut skin stretched over sinewy muscles (a fact Kate knew all to well having seen him swimming naked in a pond). Instead of heading west towards home, Kate rode east on a trail that merged with the only decent lane that crossed the northern Quantock Hills; the Nether Stowey to Crowcombe Coach Road. She arrived at Dead Woman’s Ditch to find a caravan of travellers in the field south of the lane. Seven wagons, crafted like little houses, were parked in a line while hobbled horses grazed nearby. It looks like the same Gypsies I met last year! No one has seen me – I should hide in the trees.

“Allo there!” A young man, perhaps sixteen or seventeen, with fair skin and blonde curly hair, approached Kate with a wide smile. He came onto the lane from the trees to the north, carrying an enormous bundle of branches. “What a beautiful horse. Ah, I know you!”

“Good afternoon,” Kate replied quietly, considering a quick retreat.  I think he tried to steal my dog last year, now he has an eye on Misty.

Several shabby children jogged from the forest laden with sticks. Some adults rounded the wagons. For a hot disturbing heartbeat Kate felt rather trapped, surrounded, but then she sat to attention with shoulders back, head high, riding cane held ready to use as a weapon. I’m not the girl I was last year. I’m a young lady now – fifteen in January. And mounted on a tall strong horse. I’ll not be taken advantage of! She glanced sidelong at the adults, keeping a firm rein while her mount skipped a bit as the children passed with a few small scruffy dogs. Misty snorted and settled, then knickered.

“Miss Kate!” the young man said in an odd accent of French and some other tongue. “That’s it, isn’t it? You sing and play guitar? Ah, non! Lady Kate, yes? You remember me? Jacob?”

Jacob stood on Kate’s left, cradling his bundle of firewood, grinning broadly, the picture of a friendly traveller. On Kate’s right lay the caravan where, she knew, the sun-darkened faces of adults stared at her from between their wagons. She couldn’t keep her eye on them, and didn’t like it. With a pull on the reins, Misty backed a few steps, then with a tap of the cane on her right shoulder, the mare sidestepped, putting Kate off the lane. Jacob rotated as Kate settled into her new position. She could now turn her head and look down her nose at Jacob while watching everyone at the wagons.

“We prepare dinner,” Jacob said, his grin never wavering. “Join us, please. We caught some rabbits.”

“No, thank you,” Kate replied stiffly. “I’m on my way to Nether Stowey,” she continued, instantly creating a reason for her passing. “I’m expected there,” she lied.

“You must grace us with your lovely presence, my lady,” a baritone voice rang out from the woods.

Kate jerked around in the saddle, legs squeezing the pommels. She recognized this voice and the scoundrel to which it belonged. Her muscles tightened as ice water splashed through her insides, and was swept back almost a year to when he had hugged and kissed her, hands groping her body, searching for a purse. The memory woke Kate at night with disturbing dreams, and on each instance robbed her of sleep as she relived and struggled with the experience.

“It is a pleasure to see you, my lady,” the man continued as he sauntered from the shadows. Tall and slender, he stood ramrod straight, wearing a broad-brimmed felt hat, black cropped jacket, tight crimson trousers with silvery buttons upon the outside seams, carrying an armful of wood. A smile of large white teeth gleamed from beneath his hooked nose and tremendous black moustache. He swept off his hat and bowed, long dark curly hair thrown forward and back again with flare, some firewood escaping his grasp. “Please, join us for dinner.”

“No, thank you, Mr. Sasha,” Kate said without any expression, the man’s name sour on her tongue. I’ll not bow my head to you! She felt a prickling where her cap sat against her forehead, and was uncomfortably hot beneath her corset.

“Do you not want to meet my grandparents?” Sasha asked with a raised eyebrow. “Is there not a phantom to which you would like them to speak?”

He remembers that?! What a good memory. “I shan’t dismount,” Kate said, hoping she sounded firm. “I haven’t the time.” But I would like to know who our ghost is…

“I shall fetch them for you.” Sasha strutted across the lane and disappeared beyond the wagons.

Jacob remained, grinning, still cradling an enormous bundle of branches. When an ancient couple hobbled into view, he said, “Here they are, my lady.” He attempted a bow but was too encumbered, then hurried away, murmuring something to the old man as he passed.

Old Gypsy Woman With a Black Cat pencil drawing by H.J. Harvey (1884 – 1928).

Kate studied the elderly woman as she approached; bent over using a knobby walking stick, gaily embroidered clothing, wrinkled face of mahogany leather, a small smile, and twinkling black eyes. The man was similar, but without a cane, helping his wife with the support of one arm, and he wore a faded red fez with a blue tassel hanging down the side. Is that how Egyptians dress? They look kind – that’s good. These are real Gypsies! They stopped at Misty’s right side, the woman grabbing hold of a girth strap, the man running his hands along the mare’s neck, whispering unintelligibly. Misty tossed her head once and snorted, then stood still, ears erect and rotating.

“M’ dam, m’ dam,” the woman said softly, toothlessly smiling up at Kate. “You want us?”

“I do, perhaps.” Kate now felt badly about not dismounting, but she certainly wasn’t going to do so at this point as she had to maintain her story. Tucking her riding cane under her left arm, she said, “I’m Lady Kate Beaufort. How shall I address you?”

The woman cocked her head and raised her eyebrows. She glanced at her husband.

“We Agafya,” the man said. He placed a hand on his wife’s back. “Yiayah,” he said, then indicated himself, “eh Papous. Grandma eh Grandpa, ma lady.”

“And where are you from?” Do they understand me? “D’où êtes-vous?”

“Kavala, eh Pernik.”

Kate didn’t know either place. They sounded sufficiently exotic. Lands of magic? “Voulez-vous que je parle Français?” Then she tried her other fluent languages. “Oder Deutsch? O Español?” and included, “Vel Latine? Illi Russkiy? Neu Gymraeg?”

“Greek, Turk,” Grandma Agafya said. “Eh Macedon, Bulgar, eh Torlak.”

Greek, Turkish, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Torlak? Kate didn’t know these languages, had never heard of Torlak. “Not Egyptian?” she asked.

“No.” Grandpa Agafya shook his head. “Some Egypt words. We visit, long ago. Eh Persia.”

“I would dearly love to visit Egypt and Persia.” Kate glanced up from the elderly couple and saw Sasha watching her from between a pair of wagons, camp fire smoke rising behind. This has gone on too long. I’m supposed to be on my way to Nether Stowey. I must determine if they could speak to our ghost. “I have heard, that is, last year…” Make it plain. “I was told you are able to confer with spirits.”

Silence. The Agafyas stood motionless, staring at Kate.

That wasn’t plain enough. Try again. “You can talk to fantômes?”

“Ah, oui! Yes!” The couple nodded vigorously.

“We speak with many dead, ma lady,” Grandpa Agafya said solemnly and placed a hand over his heart.

“You want know future,” Grandma Agafya said, “ask dead.”

“The dead see beyond,” Grandpa Agafya added, bugging one eye and squinting the other.

Their words unsettled and excited Kate. She trembled, feeling a cool breeze. “Will you be staying in this area for long? You were here until early December last year.”

“Yes, no.” Grandpa Agafya shrugged. “Snow? We see. Probably, Cornwall, December this year.”

“Oh, yes, quite. I understand.” It has to be cold sleeping in wagons all year. “I must go, but I shall see you again. Perhaps you will visit my house and talk with le fantôme? Of course, you would be paid for your efforts.”

Palmistry chart, left hand.

The Agafyas nodded vigorously again, the man removing his fez to reveal a bald pate. The woman reached up for Kate’s hand, and they grasped each other, but then she pulled on Kate’s glove, saying, “Retirer, retirer…”

Kate didn’t sense a threat from the woman, and felt curious, so she removed her left glove, wanting to hide the jagged star-shaped scar on her right palm and thumb.

Grandma Agafya peered at Kate’s hand for a moment and said with a smile, “Much charms, much charms. Wealth, love, children.” Her face dropped and she gazed a moment. “Much danger. Peril.” She exchanged a look with her husband, then gave Kate a gimlet stare. “Great risk? This future… of a soldier.”

Struck speechless, Kate pulled her hand away and slipped on her glove. Now I’m frightened. That’s enough. “Good day,” she squeaked, then coughed, clearing her throat. “Good day. I’m keeping you from your luncheon. I wish you a very good day.” Kate nudged Misty with her spur, prompting the horse to walk, then kicked up to a canter without looking back.

The lane ran flat and straight, bracken and gorse thick on each side. Allowing Misty full rein, the mare broke into a gallop and covered a furlong in seconds, then Kate pulled to a canter as holly closed in and the slope downward began with a gentle turn. Twisted mossy trees overhung the lane on the left. Ahead and to the right lay a glimpse of the farmland on the levels below the hills, which then vanished from sight with a descent and thickening of forest, dark of shadow and cool, a tunnel of deep green with a ruddy ribbon of packed dirt winding downward. Openings in the branches momentarily allowed light to bathe the lane, and occasionally provided a scene of hillside, the rough domain of sheep and wild animals; indeed, hares and squirrels darted by, flashes of brown and orange fur. After a few minutes the trees were taller, straighter, healthier, and tumbledown stone walls appeared among the layers of rotting leaves. Kate reined to a walk, coming from the woodland beside a cottage, a sweeping view of the levels, pastoral farms bordered by hedgerows, stretching out until they lost definition, the Bristol Channel grey, the distant Mendip Hills a hazy purple.

Spotting blackberry brambles growing by the lane, Kate stopped to pick and eat several of the late fruit. The ride had given time for thought, and she felt fine. There’s nothing to reading palms – it’s utter nonsense. Grandma Agafya probably wanted me to pay her for an explanation. She was simply trying to stir my curiosity. I hope they can truly talk to spirits. Hmm… Kate let her hunter walk down the lane to a cluster of ramshackle cottages (the thatch in need of mending) at a crossroads. A trio of girls in faded blue dresses with off-white aprons and bonnets were hanging out laundry on a hedgerow to dry. They looked like three versions of the same girl at the ages of about ten, eight, and six years of age.

“Hello,” Kate called.

The girls gathered together and stared wide-eyed at Kate. She knew them to be the daughters of a milkmaid and a shepherd.

“We’re not doing anything wrong,” the smallest girl said. “We’re doing what we were told.”

“Of that I am completely certain!” Kate said with as serious a face as she could muster, then smiled, amused by the girl’s earnest declaration. “Did a caravan of Gypsies pass by here?”

“Yes, miss,” the eldest girl replied. “They camped for a few days beside the castle, and played music, and acted. They came last year, too.”

“Did you attend any of the performances?”

The girls nodded.

“Did you enjoy it?”

“It was wonderful,” the eldest girl said. “Rain came ab–”

“They did magic!” the youngest girl interrupted. She motioned with open hands in circles, as though trying to conjure something from the air. The middle girl placed an arm around her shoulders, and whispered, “Shush.”

“Thank you very much for your time,” Kate said. “I hope you have some time to play in the sunshine. Enjoy your afternoon.”

Castle St., Nether Stowey, there is still an open stream running much of its length. The cottages now have roof tiles, and most of the cobbles are paved over.

Kate continued along the lane, passing farm houses and cottages, then up a hill and around to the south of the grass-covered ruins of Nether Stowey Castle. She entered the village on Castle Street, descending from the hill, dismounted upon reaching cobblestones, loosened the girth strap of her saddle, gathered the voluminous skirt of her habit, and let Misty drink from a stream. Kate led her horse past the terraced white-plastered thatched-roofed cottages and red-stone slate-roofed houses on both sides of the street. The village was quiet except for the clack of her heels, the clomp and tink of Misty’s shod hoofs, and the gurgle of the stream as it channelled into the confines of a rock-lined ditch; indeed, a ditch Kate fell into once at the age of eight, while playing with village children and a stray cat. How far Nether Stowey had seemed then, well beyond the limits of her permitted recreation area, and by the time she had run home her clothes were dry, so a secret was kept, but Kate didn’t dare venture alone to this village again for two summers. She chuckled to herself and shook her head at the memory.

Castle Street ended at the main street through the village, and Kate saw activity outside the businesses. After greeting a shopkeeper, Kate asked, “Where is everyone this afternoon?”

“Men out a work, m’ lady,” he replied, “an’ many of the women an’ little chil’ren are at their Friend Society.”

“Ah… good for them. Thank you, Mr. Stacey.”

After securing Misty to a hitching ring outside the hotel as far from the taproom door as possible, Kate strode confidently through the main entrance with a bright grin ready for the staff. She could have gone for refreshment at the Female Friendly Society, but felt her presence at the gathering would be cause for awkward or stilted conversation as she didn’t fit in with the village women. This fact she accepted as the way of society, ever since she grew too old to play with village children. Perhaps once she married, and had children, she would be welcomed and could become involved in charitable pursuits. While using the hotel facilities she thought about calling on the Harvey’s at Stowey Court, but decided against it as the afternoon was well advanced. She made her way back to Misty, tightened her girth strap, then climbed carefully into the saddle from a bench in front of the hotel, repeating the process of draping her skirt.

Kate let her hunter walk slowly on the cobblestones of Castle Street, moved to a fast walk upon reaching the dirt and maintained it while climbing the slope towards the castle ruins. They left the road, jumped a hedgerow, cantered around the hill, disturbing several sheep, jumped another hedgerow, then took a little lane that met with the road again, but didn’t stay on it for long. Kate turned on to a path, running on low ground between pastures, having to walk through the course of a stream, but then getting to higher drier country, a farmstead, then a path up a wooded valley. This route would generally keep her off the road and lanes, as she felt certain the caravan of travellers would be headed for Crowcombe or a camping spot in that direction. They wouldn’t remain on the field at Dead Woman’s Ditch because there wasn’t a good source of water. Whenever Kate had bivouacked on the high ground of the moors, she always brought a collection of canteens to refill in the valley springs, or had water delivered by one of their estate gamekeepers.

North Quantock Hills. This is the country Kate was making her way across. Looking southeast, Holford would be down the valley to the left, Kate’s home to the right. The coach road is not in sight, but lies to the south. On the high moors there are grasses, gorse, and bracken with some holly, the valleys (combes)  are filled with trees.

The trail ascended the valley, merged with a narrow lane for a small stretch on a ridge, then went back into the woods, keeping Kate hidden from view by anyone who might be on the road. Returning into the top of the valley they had ridden from Holford earlier in the afternoon, Kate let Misty pick her way westward, up on to the open moor, then galloped on a decent lane for a few furlongs. Slowing to a canter, Kate scanned the south from some relatively high ground, and saw no one. Following the lane north-west, reining down to a walk, she felt confident that there was no chance of running into the travellers again. They descended into the woods behind Quantock Hall, scattering a herd of red deer, and arrived at their stable. Kate’s black retriever, Ebony, greeted her with wagging tail. Kate left Misty in the care of a groom and walked with her dog around to the front of the manor, entering by the main door. Wade (their youngest footman) scrambled to assist upon seeing her step across the threshold, taking cane, hat, and gloves, with a bow.

Hearing the piano played in the parlour, Kate followed the music and found her father and step-mother. After greetings, Kate mentioned her encounter at Dead Woman’s Ditch.

“A boy said they were cooking hares,” Kate said. “They wouldn’t eat any sheep, would they?”

“I think it unlikely,” Earl Beaufort replied. “They depend on the goodwill of the land owners. Poaching is a serious crime. I remember when poachers were hanged.”

“Transportation, now,” Jane chimed in, then continued playing the piano. “Off to Van Diemen’s Land, or Bermuda, or Norfolk Island, or… other such penal colonies.”

Earl Beaufort nodded in agreement.

Kate thought it might be interesting and exciting to travel to any of those places.

“You were gone all afternoon.” Earl Beaufort rose and stepped toward Kate. “Where did you ride?”

Kate described her route backwards, leaving out the reason she went to Nether Stowey, and made no mention of any galloping or jumping.

“You passed by Alfoxton Manor,” Earl Beaufort said. “That’s where Mr. Wordsworth wrote some of his poetry. I was a boy when he lived there.”

“Mr. Wordsworth?” Kate asked with cocked head, arched brow, and pursed lips, trying to remember. Why do I know that name?

“He’s the Poet Laureate. Has been for several years, since Mr. Southey died.”

“Oh, yes, of course.” Kate nodded. “I have studied some of his poetry.” I don’t know why people like it so much.  “Now, I should change. Excuse me.”

“A moment, Katelyn.” Earl Beaufort strolled with her towards the doorway. He lowered his voice. “I’ve received a missive from Hugh Grosvenor accepting my invitation.”

Many thoughts raced through Kate’s mind. She had asked her father to write Earl Grosvenor at the end of August and invite him to visit. And she had also written, asking about his health, his siblings, and how lovely it would be to see him. He replied promptly with a long letter, and an exchange of two more since, but each time his concluded with a description of how parliamentary duties kept him busy. Parliament wasn’t sitting; however, he had much work to do within his riding before returning to London in November.

“He’ll be arriving in a few days,” Earl Beaufort continued. “You… are you ready to see him?”

Kate hesitated a moment, then said firmly, “I am. I am, yes. Now, please excuse me.” She smiled, but then hurried from the room, her face blank, stomach tight and heart pounding.