Quantock Hills, late October 1848
With luncheon done and outfits changed, Kate and Hugh once again met in the front hall.
“Where shall we go?” Hugh asked, taking up a bone handled riding cane. “Down the vale?”
“I prefer the hills,” Kate said, gathering the heavy skirt of her dark green velvet habit over one arm. She glanced around, wondering why it was so quiet. Where is everyone? Where’s Bonny? Clearly, her parents were making an effort to allow Kate and Hugh some privacy, without even the distraction of a pet dog. The couple had enjoyed a morning walk together; they would be chaperoned for their afternoon ride. “I thought you might like the views from Wills Neck. We’ll be able to see Dartmoor to the south-west, and as far as the Brecon Beacons to the north.”
“If it remains clear.”
“Splendid. After you.”
Kate strode towards the door with Hugh at her elbow, Reynold waiting to open it for them. The tall brawny footman stood at attention, his eyes fixed on an unknown patch of wall. The first time I wore this habit I wondered what Reynold would think of it, and of me. It is a striking costume! Has he ever seen me wear it? Kate artfully quickened her pace and stopped where the door would swing widest into the hall, causing the footman to pause.
“Excuse me, my lady,” Reynold murmured.
Kate stepped back, looking up at Reynold’s square chin. For the briefest moment he glanced down at her, eye-contact, she started to smile, then he snapped back to attention, the door wide open. Hmm… Why do I care what he thinks? Kate and Hugh continued outside where their mounts stood ready, controlled by grooms. Rudman, Earl Beaufort’s valet, sat casually in his saddle, letting his small gelding nibble front lawn at the edge of the gravel. Hugh insisted on helping Kate into the saddle of Misty, her dapple-grey mare, then he approached his mount, a bay thoroughbred (one of Earl Beaufort’s hunters).
“What’s her name?” he asked while adjusting his stirrup leathers.
“Martie. Short for Britomartis.”
“Hello, Martie,” Hugh said with some gentle stroking and fondling of the mare’s neck and ears. “Who’s a pretty girl, eh?”
Kate watched and grinned, sharing Hugh’s love of horses.
Hugh glanced at Kate. “Britomartis… of ancient Rhodes?”
“Crete, I think. A goddess of hunting and mountains.”
“Ah..” he smiled, “apropos.”
Hugh effortlessly mounted and they set out on a trail east of the manor, letting the horses walk to warm up, and ascended the first valley, one of Kate’s childhood playgrounds. As they neared a small pond, Kate thought of Jeremy. I was swimming with him here, only a few months ago! What would Hugh say if he knew? Images of the labourer’s large sinewy naked body pushed into Kate’s mind. A shiver ran down her spine. Enough! How would Hugh look undressed? Thin… that’s fine. As they rode uphill, they passed through hardwood forest, and elder and coppiced hazel then, on the hills, hawthorn and holly, the stone walls topped by beech. Upon reaching wide open moorland they cantered along a dirt lane and reined in overlooking the woods of Crowcombe Court Park. They could see parts of the village below, including the far off cottages beside the turnpike road.
“Is this Carew land?” Hugh asked.
“I believe so…” Kate thought a moment. “Everything between the last combe we passed and well beyond the next one certainly belongs to Sir Walter. We’ve hunted through here a few times. The fox are wily.” She pointed to a small clearing where a few roe deer grazed placidly. “There are some deer.”
“Lovely animals.” Hugh swivelled in his saddle, staring back. Rudman was visible, waiting by a distant stretch of hedgerow.
“You needn’t worry about Rudman,” Kate said. “He was a light dragoon from the age of nine – rose from trumpeter to sergeant-major. Campaigned in Spain and France, then in India. He’s spent most of his life in a saddle.”
“Oh…” Hugh smirked. “So he can keep up with you?”
Kate laughed. “Indeed! He serves as a skilled and subtle chaperon.”
“He does. With whom did he serve?”
“They’re hussars, now. That’s Lord Cardigan’s regiment.”
“Yes, but Rudman retired before that… odious man took command.”
“Ho ho! You don’t care for Cardigan?”
Kate eloquently raised one eyebrow and slowly shook her head. He’s a lecherous beast. She loathed the way the Earl of Cardigan leered at her, grabbed her hands, and touched her back, whenever they happened to meet over the last couple years. Rumours of affairs and mistreatment of his long-suffering wife added to Kate’s disapproval of the peer.
“He is an arrogant tyrant,” Hugh said. “Shall we carry on? There are dark clouds building in the west.”
They cantered to the Coach Road between Crowcombe and Nether Stowey, crossed it, slowed to a walk, and entered a lane flanked by red stone walls and ancient beech trees.
“This is part of the Drove Road,” Kate explained. “Farmers used it to move stock from the Vale of Taunton up to the Bristol Channel for centuries. Truly a high-way. If the valley floods, travellers have always known that this route is safe and dry. Alfred the Great and his army came along here whilst battling the Danes.”
“Interesting,” Hugh said softly. “It’s beautiful. A wild cathedral, stretching into the distance.”
“I’m glad you like it. I had many adventures here.”
“Playing with village children?”
“No. By myself, my dog, my imagination.”
“I see. I’ve been thinking about your débutante ball.”
“You have?” That was an abrupt change of subject.
“Yes. In fact, I’ve discussed it with your father. You could have it at Grosvenor House, with my sister.”
“Janey is coming out next spring?!”
“No, not Janey. She isn’t ready. Agnes.”
“Oh…?” I thought she came out last year. She’s eighteen in January. “She won’t mind sharing her ball with an earl’s daughter?”
“At Caroline’s wedding I heard Agnes and Tavia chattering about hosting several débutantes at her ball, and of lower rank than you. All my sisters thus far have done so – Eleanor, Mary, Lizzie, Caroline, and Tavia. We have a decent house for it. Not as grand as some, but large enough.”
“Caroline was wed in August.” Kate remembered her parents talking about the marriage at dinner one evening and needed something to say while reflecting on the expectations of a débutante ball and Hugh’s understatement in regards to Grosvenor House, the Westminster’s residence in Mayfair. Decent house? Not grand?!
“To William Leigh,” Hugh confirmed, “Baron Leigh’s eldest son.”
“Why do I need to have a ball at all? Aren’t we engaged the day I’m presented at court?”
“It’s at the ball I’ll announce our engagement. Then it can appear in the newspapers.”
“Oh…” Announcements? Newspapers? God’s wounds. “I do like the idea of being a débutante amongst many, and not the principal hostess. My step-mother might not like it. Your mother might not. You have to tell your parents about our contract.”
“I shall, now that you have agreed.”
They rode in silence for a while, then Hugh said, “I look forward to having you stay at Eaton Hall next summer. Have you visited before?”
“We did, when your grandfather was still alive. I remember he ha–”
“That’s right! I remember too. Your father went shooting with us. I would have been… sixteen?”
Kate nodded. “I was eight.”
“We’ve both changed a great deal.”
Again they rode in silence for a while, birdsong filling the void.
“We’re now above Triscombe,” Kate said as they came to an upright stone. “This marker is as old as Britons, and is said to possess some magic.”
“Not much of a monolith,” Hugh observed. “It’s nothing compared to Avebury or Salisbury Plain. You’ve been to Stonehenge?”
“Of course.” Kate smiled at the memories. “I carved my initials in one of the stones. Ahem… Enormous skeleton of dateless birth! Mysterious chronicle of infant Earth! Each cloud capped dome that mocked thy roofless pile, when Rome’s proud Genius trod Britannia’s Isle, the tyrant’s boast through many a vanished year, dreamlike hath passed away – but thou art here!”
“Well done!” Hugh laughed. “Shelley?”
“No. I don’t remember. It’s a rather long poem I translated into several languages for a tutor. I memorized the first stanza.” She urged her horse to walk again, Hugh keeping apace, emerging from the tree lined lane onto an open hillside. “Up there…” Kate pointed with her crop, “is Wills Neck. Race?”
Without waiting for a reply, Kate kicked Misty to a canter, then a gallop. The hoofs pounded the turf as the horses dug in and strained up the slope, startled sheep dashing away and sounding the alarm with scathing bleats. They reached the broad flat summit together and cantered in a circle around a pile of stones.
“Splendid!” Hugh said. “That must have been about four furlongs in a minute!”
Kate came to a halt, delighted by Hugh’s enthusiasm. He reined in beside her with a short skid on the turf and laughed.
“It’s a tremendous view,” Hugh said, staring west. “What’s that high point?”
“Dunkery Hill, in the heart of Exmoor. It’s supposed to be haunted.”
“Villagers who once resided down the hill. They all died during the Black Death.”
“Ah… there were many villages expunged by plague. I pray that we never witness such ravages. Are there remains?”
“Not much that I’ve explored. If there were stone buildings they must have been pulled down and the materials used elsewhere. I found a simple silver spoon outside a badger den. There are a pair of much older hill forts.”
“Another one of your childhood playgrounds?” Hugh asked.
“Not quite – a bit too far” Kate giggled. “My father, brother, and I, bivouacked there once when I was five or six years old. I’ve been back a few times. It’s a day trip by horse.” Kate rotated her mount to the south-west, where dark clouds threatened a storm. “Those very far off hills are Dartmoor.” She then indicated a trail to their left. “Broomfield is less than an hour walk from here – where Mr. Crosse is squire.”
“Mr. Andrew Crosse? The electrician and galvanist?”
“Yes. My brother used to spend days with him, working on his experiments.”
They turned and let their mounts meander slowly northwards. Kate pointed out the distant Brecon Beacons, obscured by some mist on the Bristol Channel, the sky grey-blue. Upon reaching the cusp of the slope, Kate spotted Rudman waiting a little way down the hill by a twisted hawthorn, letting his gelding graze. The horses descended languidly onto the ridge above Triscombe and then quickened into the trees of the Drove Road.
“Shall we strike out across the fields?” Kate asked, only to draw up short as three figures shambled from the shadows near the upright stone. Misty shied and took a sidestep. Martie neighed as Hugh reined in sharply, but then urged her ahead, placing himself between Kate and the unexpected laggards.
“On your way!” Hugh ordered.
“It’s all right,” Kate said, manoeuvring Misty around Martie, getting a look at three mahogany skinned children in somewhat tattered clothes, hidden by various brightly coloured scarves, shawls, waistcoats, and sashes. “There are a tribe of gypsies camped in the area.”
“Good day, sir, miss.” The tallest of the children, a waif of perhaps twelve years, spoke with an odd accent and performed an unorthodox curtsey, including some theatrical waving of her arms. She took the smaller children, both boys, by the hand and pulled them between the upright stone and a wall.
“Itinerant Irish tinkers?” Hugh asked from the back of his throat.
“No,” Kate replied, edging Misty forward, “from far off lands – Greece and Turkey and such places. They came last winter, too. I imagine they fled the Continent two years ago because of the unrest. Hello,” she addressed the children. “Where have you set your camp?”
“In the woods.” The girl pointed vaguely. “There is good water… a ruisseau?”
“A stream. I know it,” Kate said, fairly certain of the small clearing nearby with a clear spring that ran east through a valley. “Have you performed in Crowcombe? Or Triscombe?”
The children stared up at Kate and nodded.
“When do you perform in Crowcombe again?”
“Soon?” The girl shrugged. “We need dry evenings.”
“We have had quite a lot of late day showers recently.”
“Speaking of which,” Hugh said, “another storm is closing in. Let’s move on.”
“We probably have time to visit their camp.”
“Why?” Hugh demanded.
“There is an elderly couple…” What’s wrong? Kate perceived a stiffening of Hugh’s posture. He sat up very still with his neck back in his collar, eyebrows lowered, mouth in a firm straight line. He’s worried about getting wet? “This couple converses with spirits, and descries the future. I would li–”
“Nonsense! You’re talking twaddle.”
Kate felt like she’d been slapped. Waves of heat rose through her body. She urged Misty into a fast walk along the Drove Road. Her heart pounded. How cruel, to say so, like that… She glanced back at Hugh, who rode off her right hip. Kate took a calming breath, then said, “There’s a ghost, in our house, tha–”
“Childish gibberish,” Hugh snapped. “Would you truly enter a gypsy camp?”
Kate jerked her head back and stared straight ahead, her vision blurring. “Yes, I would. I have before!”
“What? You… go gambolling over the moors with gypsies?”
“I do not!”
“Does Lord Beaufort know of this?”
Kate’s upset turned to fear. “What are you going to say to my father?”
“Never mind your father. What about my opinion? I’ll not have you consorting with gypsies!”
Kate ground her teeth for a moment, blinked against her tears, fear replaced by anger, then muttered, “I’ll do as I please, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”
“Pardon?” Hugh urged his mount ahead so he could look sidelong at Kate. “You shall not speak to gypsies again. Do you understand me?”
Kate saw his flushed face in her periphery. He’ll not see me weeping! She kicked Misty into a gallop, and whipped her once, reaching a wild pace.
Ignoring Hugh’s yell, Kate gave Misty free rein and whipped her again, the hunter leaning into a shallow turn, hooves thudding on the red dirt, walls and trees flying by on either side. They came out of the turn onto a straight at a break-neck speed, weaving around trees growing on the roadway. Kate ducked under branches while trusting Misty to stay on a clear path, not caring if a stumble catapulted them both into a fatal collision. She peeked back and saw Hugh in pursuit, falling behind, his top hat gone. At a break in a wall, Kate reined hard to bring Misty to a canter and leapt into a pasture, cleared some tumbled stones, then followed a hedgerow down off the hills.
Kate cooled, and calmed, and reflected upon what had been said. Hugh called me childish, and he ordered me! Like a scullery maid – worse! Why? They jumped another wall, entered a lane, which led to the Coach Road into Crowcombe, and Kate dismounted at the churchyard wall, securing Misty on a yard of lush grass, hanging her crop on the leaping pommel. Hurrying to her mother’s grave, vision blurring anew, Kate pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and dabbed her eyes. The sun vanished behind the approaching clouds, the breeze bringing a chill. She stood in front of the markers denoting the resting place of her mother and deceased brothers, when the sound of hoof clops came to her ears. That might be Hugh, and Rudman – if they saw me go down the hill. Kate jogged to the church, tripping on her skirt, and perched on one of the cold stone benches in the shadows of the entrance porch. She always liked sitting there; peace, quiet, safe. It wasn’t really a hiding place, they would see Misty tied near the gate. Kate thought briefly of slipping within the church, and sitting on their family pew, but remained fixed, smoothing her jacket and arranging the heavy velvet of her skirt into pleats. The clopping grew louder, then stopped, followed by some indecipherable murmuring. After what seemed like several long minutes, Kate noticed the porch darkening and, without looking, knew that Hugh was at the threshold.
“May I join you?” he asked quietly.
“If you wish,” Kate sniffed, studying the craftsmanship of a glove.
Hugh sat beside her, not too close, but within reach.
Out of the corner of an eye, Kate noted Hugh’s top hat in his hand. “You’ve got your hat. That’s good.”
“Yes… yes. Rudman, retrieved it, for me. You scared him – you scared us both – riding off like that.”
“Sorry,” Kate said, without emotion.
“Don’t apologise, instead please promise me you’ll never take such a risk ever again!”
“Kate, please…” Hugh rose and crossed to the bench opposite Kate, sitting forward. “This… recklessness… don’t you understand? It’s dangerous. I simply fear what may happen to you. And of your reputation.”
“Are you referring to galloping the Drove? Or talking with gypsies?”
“Both, of course.”
“I’ve never galloped there before,” Kate said, making eye-contact with Hugh. He looks deeply concerned. Such a kind face. “I wouldn’t want Misty to be injured. But where’s the harm in talking with gypsies?”
“They’re immoral heathens! Crime follows in their wake.”
“These gypsies aren’t criminals. They’re performers – musicians, dancers, magicians.”
“Ha! Yes, all sorts of possessions magically disappear as they pass through neighbourhoods.”
“That’s not amusing.”
“Consider this then, if our society knew, that you frequent gypsy camps… well! You’d be… tainted, in the very least, perhaps ruined!”
“I do not frequent gypsy camps! It’s you, saying I gambol over the Quantocks with them. That’s how truth gets twisted, and becomes gossip.”
“Fine. I apologise. What is the truth?”
Kate briefly described meeting the travellers the previous year, and running into them at Dead Woman’s Ditch this year. Of her desire to have the elderly couple visit her house, and try to communicate with the ghost who haunts the medieval portion. (She didn’t mention her unsettling encounters with one of the men, or the scare she had caused by returning late from their camp last December.)
“Your father approves of this?” Hugh asked.
“I have yet to broach the topic,” Kate admitted. “I will.”
“Let’s go see him now.” Hugh stood.
“No.” I’m not ready. I have to weigh all the options. Kate studied her other glove.
Hugh took a few small slow waffling steps, then sat again. It grew darker as scattered raindrops plashed on the grey flagstones of the walkway. Zephyrs swirled brown and yellow leaves past the entrance.
“Now we’re caught in the storm,” Hugh sighed.
Kate didn’t mind getting wet; she loved being out in all weather. Her concern turned to Rudman, who would be waiting with the horses. Of course, the old campaigner wouldn’t complain, as he always endured everything with silent stoicism, but Kate felt a need to get him and the horses into shelter.
“We should go,” Kate said abruptly, springing to her feet, striding out of the porch into the wind and rain. She halted. “Hugh…”
“Yes?” He caught up and stood beside her, still holding his hat. “What is it?”
“I trust you not to say anything about this to my father, or step-mother. We are betrothed, and should be able to keep private matters between us. Agreed?”
“Ah…” He glanced around the churchyard and put on his hat. “Of course. And if I forbid you from having any further dealings with those gypsies?”
Kate didn’t like his tone, and she felt tears forming again, hurt and anger. Forbid? Is that how you’re going to treat me? I must… how did Mrs. Crozier insist I deal with men? Her emotions dissipated with a stroke of tactical brilliance. “What of charity?”
“I will certainly have to provide unwanted clothing for any of the children, should they come begging at our house or the church. And when they perform in Crowcombe? I will speak to them. To not would be ungracious.”
“Oh! Yes, quite. That would be fine, I suppose. In your parents presence, or–”
“And I promise most careful caution,” Kate said wide-eyed, turning to face Hugh. “No risks.” She pecked his cheek. “Now, let’s get home and out of the rain.” Kate marched for the gate, feeling very clever. I managed that perfectly!