Farleigh Castle, Part II, mid February 1848
“The ginger beer should be settled by now,” Kate said as they climbed from the crypt and into the churchyard. “Would you like a drink, and a sandwich? Are you hungry?”
“Yes, almost always,” Hugh replied with a wink.
“Me too!” Kate exclaimed cheerily, then rued her indelicacy. That sounded unladylike. I must be more thoughtful. She felt and heard her stomach grumble. Oh no! I hope Hugh doesn’t hear!
Hugh extinguished the lanterns and left them on the top stair. They checked the horses, collected their various saddlebags, found a spot in the sunshine, protected from the wind by crumbled walls, and spread out a blanket. Hugh warily uncorked the bottles while Kate laid out dishes and unwrapped the food, then she sat sideways on one hip. They were soon enjoying a pleasant little picnic. Hugh ate and drank with gusto, Kate nibbled and sipped slowly from a silver cup. Curious sheep approached a couple times, then ran away. Some pigeons (altogether braver than the sheep) partook in the meal, encouraged by the offer of scattered crumbs. From the distance came the yowling of hounds, and the blare of a horn, announcing a hunt underway somewhere in the hills. The sandwiches, sliced carrots, little honey cakes, and four bottles of ginger beer did not last long.
“I’ll just be a moment,” Hugh said, getting to his feet and walking away, putting to flight aggrieved pigeons.
Kate took time to appreciate his long legs and shiny jackboots, and noticed him limping a bit. She slipped a perfume bottle from the smallest of her assorted bags, dabbed some on her neck, then fished out a palm mirror and a little jar and reapplied a carmine coloured balm to her lips, smiling at the shiny reddish tinged result. Kate batted her eyelashes, happy to see the black paint (of blended oils, frankincense and mastic resin) subtlety accenting her eyes hadn’t smeared. Glancing over the rest of her semblance, she saw dirt clinging to the heavy velvet of her skirt, and tried to beat it out. Hugh returned.
“I’ve let my habit trail and it’s all dusty,” Kate said by way of explanation. Then, curious about the limp, asked, “Have you hurt your leg?”
“No, it’s my left boot. I’m fine in the saddle, but walking… it’s cutting into my ankle.”
“How many pairs of socks are you wearing?”
“You need layers, Hugh. I usually wear two or more – three today.” Kate pulled her skirt and longest petticoat aside to show off silver tasselled riding boots, off-white socks at the tops, and black stockings sheathing her knees. “I always wear silk hose under the layers of wool.” She beat her skirt some more then cast it over her legs. When she looked at Hugh again he was perfectly still, staring at her. “What?”
“It’s nothing,” he replied with a few hard blinks. “Those are splendid boots!”
“Thank you. I have many different pairs. I like these.” She eased her skirt aside again to uncover her feet, providing a partial view of the fine quality leather. “They were terribly stiff. Rather Hessian. One of my tutors suggested the style. This habit, too. She died last month – on New Year’s.”
“I’m sorry. Do you miss her?”
“Yes and no. She was very strict.” Kate flicked some tiny crumbs off the blanket, recalling the woman’s hard lessons. “Sometimes cruel, but fair… and extremely intelligent. She taught me a great deal. Shall we pack?”
“Yes. There is an inn nearby. Do you require–”
“I’m fine.” You drank most of the ginger beer. “We should start back.”
“Agreed.” Hugh consulted his gold timepiece from a waistcoat pocket and scanned the sky. “It’s getting cloudy.”
“Right. Stay there.” Kate had previously planned this stunt and then hoped for such an opportunity, depending on how the day progressed, and felt emboldened by the friendly familiarity of the picnic. She stood and judged the height of the sun and some rubble, then stepped onto a stone. After shifting so her shadow fell over Hugh, Kate took off her cap and threw it to him, then untied the ribbon holding her wavy tresses, pulled the braids forward and tossed her head. “Now… what colour is my hair?”
Hugh had watched her with a puzzled expression, but when she posed her question he burst out laughing. Kate guffawed and recovered. She tossed her head again.
“What colour?” she demanded, trying to maintain her composure.
“Ha ha! All right, Kate, ha ha,” he gasped, laughing and nodding. “Ha ha! I do see some red… ha ha! Yes, very dark auburn.”
“Good!” Kate jumped off the stone and scooped up her cap, chuckling at her antics and small victory.
They stowed their picnic kit and gathered their bags, safely fastening every buckle, then saddled the horses. On Kate’s request, they rode north, galloping through pastures and jumping some low walls. When they slowed to a walk to navigate an expanse of woods, following a broken trail through small clearings, Kate noticed Hugh surreptitiously checking his pockets.
“Have you lost something?” she asked.
“No, I’m merely rearranging. A pistol got jostled.”
“Ah, yes…” Kate halted, “may I see one?”
While the horses turned their attention to the lush spring growth, Hugh slipped a small pistol from a coat pocket and held it out to Kate. She secured her whip under a strap, then took the weapon and appraised the craftsmanship. It had two barrels, one over the other, each fired by an independent hammer and percussion cap, a single trigger, dark wooden handle, silver details, with decorative casting, engraving, and etching on the hammers, side plates and butt cap. Hugh drew the other pistol from another pocket; it was identical.
“They’re very fine,” Kate said. “With such short barrels I suspect they aren’t accurate.”
“No, they’re not.”
“Intended for short range.”
“Have you ever had to use them against someone?”
“No, but I believe–”
“If a man, came at you… with a dagger, cudgel, or… say, a sabre, how close would you let him near before you fired?”
“I’ve never thought about it.”
Kate handed the pistol to Hugh, then dismounted in one fluid motion. Hugh quickly and awkwardly jumped down, juggling pistols, riding cane, and reins.
“The horses can graze awhile,” Kate said, wrapping her reins around a branch. “There wasn’t much for them at the castle, the sheep had the lawns down to stubble. Let’s try your pistols.”
“Try them how?” Hugh struggled with full hands to secure his horse.
“This will be fun. Here, give me your cane.” She took it and walked twelve paces away. “I’ll come at you.” She brandished the pretend sabre menacingly. “You tell me when you would shoot. Ready?”
Without waiting for a response, Kate dashed at Hugh. She stopped short, close to slashing him on the neck, upon realizing that he was standing with the pistols pointing at the ground, his mouth hanging open.
“What’s wrong?” It was simple instructions. “I caught you by surprise? We’ll try again.”
“Don’t cock the hammers. Just hold them up and say bang, bang!”
“Oooh… all right.”
Kate struck an attack pose. “Ready this time?”
Hugh stood with the pistols at waist height, directed at Kate. She charged with the riding cane held high. When Hugh yelled bang twice in rapid succession, Kate stopped, then counted the remaining paces.
“About half…” Kate judged, “six paces on the second shot.” She swivelled around and picked out a large dead tree on the edge of the clearing. “This will be your target.” Kate paced off the distance from the tree, then placed Hugh’s cane on the grass. “Try a shot.”
Hugh hesitated, then nodded and strode to the cane. He cocked a hammer on the pistol in his right hand, and fired from the waist. Kate didn’t see an impact. The horses spooked at the sound of the explosive discharge, but immediately settled to grazing again. The salty smelling bluish-grey smoke cleared.
“Did I miss?” Hugh asked.
“You didn’t aim properly,” Kate said consolingly. “Try again?”
“Right.” Hugh cocked the other hammer of the same pistol and held it out with a straight arm, turning sideways, sighting along the barrel.
“That’s better,” Kate whispered.
Hugh fired, hitting the tree near the right edge.
“May I try?” Kate asked. I’ll show him how to shoot.
Kate took the loaded pistol and felt the trigger, cocked a hammer perceiving a click, pulled the trigger to judge the draw, and eased the hammer forward and back again. She then cocked the other hammer, noting a second click on the trigger. Aiming with her left hand, she fired, switched to her right, and fired again through the smoke.
“Heigho!” Hugh exclaimed.
Before any other words could be spoken, a pack of hounds bounded into the clearing, barking and howling. A middle-aged man in a hunting suit, a short sword dangling from his left hip denoting him as a master huntsman, astride an enormous black stallion, rode behind the pack from a side trail.
“What’s all this?” he demanded, looking down with a scowl at Hugh. “What’s the gunfire?”
“Merely target practice, Sir,” Hugh replied. “You needn’t be concerned.”
“Target practice, you say?” The man frowned. “With a young lady?” He eyed Kate a moment.
“It’s true,” Kate said softly, feeling hot and breathless. I’ve placed us in compromising circumstances…
“Outrageous conduct,” the man exclaimed. “What young lady acts in such an outlandish fashion?” He rounded on Hugh. “To ride through is one thing, Sir, but to linger, and wantonly discharge firearms? Unacceptable! You are disturbing our hunt! On your way, Sir!”
With a small movement of the huntsman’s hands and legs, the stallion half pirouetted and jumped into a canter, disappearing down a path with the boisterous hounds in pursuit. Kate and Hugh stared at each other with raised eyebrows. She saw fleeting indications of shock and chagrin cross his face. How stupid of me, to act so recklessly. Why did I… why couldn’t–
“My goodness!” Hugh smirked. “I think someone is having a bad day!”
“Yes.” Kate’s vision blurred, upset from the confrontation. I mustn’t let Hugh see me weep. “We’ve spoiled the hunt.”
“Nonsense,” Hugh said. “His bloody dogs are louder than my pistols.”
“Oh… perhaps.” Kate brightened marginally, blinking back the tears. “Why did he speak to us so angrily?”
“Hard-hearted old troll. Who cares?” Hugh gave a dismissive shrug. “More important, you hit the tree both times, with each hand!”
“Mere luck,” Kate said weakly, in a desire to downplay her skill. Hugh could tell everyone I’m a tomboy. “This was all indelicate behaviour. I’m so ashamed.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“You won’t bruit about that I’m some sort of… Amazonian creature?”
“Never! How could you even imagine such a thing? And who would believe it? You’re so beautiful and elegant!”
Kate looked down at the pistol, embarrassed by the unexpected flattery. Beautiful and elegant?! He must be drunk. She took a breath, then said softly, “But a reputation precedes a girl. My decorum matron warned me again and again to be cautious. People who have never met me could be convinced of anything. And those who do know me might search for excuses to spoil my prospects.”
“For a brilliant marriage.” Kate handed him his pistol without making eye contact. “My stepmother imagines me marrying a prince, or an influential and fabulously wealthy duke or marquess.”
Hugh frowned and paced in a circle. He pocketed the pistols, picked up his riding cane and tapped the shaft of a boot. “And what do you imagine?”
“In regards to marriage? Not much. I imagine travelling the world, visiting strange and wonderful places, having adventures.”
“Adventures? You’re talking nonsense.”
“Why? I spoke of my desire to travel earlier. Do you think me a tomboy now?”
“No… I think beneath that mature veneer you are a silly little girl!”
That stung, and anger flashed hot in Kate’s breast, her temper already warmed by the belittling words of the huntsman. “Silly little girl, indeed!” She fixed Hugh with an icy glare. “Lest you may not have observed, I am a young lady, and I am not silly or little!”
“No, of course not,” he said rapidly, his posture and features sagging. “I’m sorry. I… I can’t… I shouldn’t have said that.”
“But it’s what you truly think.”
“It is not! I swe–”
“Then why did you say so?”
Hugh looked down. “I… it’s… Kate, I think I love you.”
“Pardon?!” Love me?!
“I dream about you all the time – for months and months.” He flushed deep red.
“But… that cannot be.” Kate’s ire withered as quickly as it sprouted, to be replaced by concern and apprehension, with a coating of dread, her stomach tightening. “We hardly know each other. I haven’t seen you since we spoke at Bicknoller last June.”
“I’ve seen you.”
“When?” He has been following me?! Liar! Kate spun on her heels, furious and frightened, strode to the horses, seeking protection and escape, and untied her reins. “In Sydney Gardens?”
Kate grabbed the top pommel and cantle, jumped, laying across the saddle, then lifted herself up to a sitting position. Hugh ran to her side. She raced to adjust her skirt and lock her legs into the pommels, retrieving her whip to use as a weapon, feeling threatened.
“Last August,” Hugh explained urgently, holding the stirrup so Kate could find it with her boot, “you were in Watchet with The Countess of Lovelace and her children.”
“Oh… yes.” Kate calmed a fraction, weighing his words, then allowed him to help her. “Her daughter stayed with us at Quantock Hall for a fortnight.”
“I’ve never been introduced to Lady Lovelace. I couldn’t approach you.”
“I suppose not. That would have been inappropriate.”
“Then I saw you again in September, during the Bridgwater Fair.” Hugh swung into his saddle. “You were on St. Mathew’s Field, looking at horses, with your father, and some other people.”
“Why didn’t you say hello?” Kate watched him sidelong.
“As far as I witnessed, you remained as a party. Your father would have had to acknowledge me.”
“Yes? And? You are known to him. Did you give him the opportunity? I certainly didn’t see you.”
Hugh shifted his weight. “I meant to… I couldn’t determine a proper moment. I noticed your hand was bandaged?”
Kate hesitated, urged her mount into a walk, heading north on a trail, then admitted, “It was.” She knew her face must be growing as red as Hugh’s, and after a moment added, “An accident.”
“Nothing grievous, I hope. I did notice a scar when you removed your gloves to eat.”
“You did?” Drat…
“Yes. On the side of your thumb. What happened?”
“A revolver shattered.”
“Whilst visiting my brother in Hastings,” Kate said lowly, deciding it may be wiser to expand upon this subject, no matter how embarrassing, if it kept Hugh from speaking any further about love, “we were assaying…” oh, it’s Jack’s secret… “I shot… and… the barrel of a pistol exploded.”
They emerged from the forest into a field, the Freshford mill visible in the distance. Kate realized she had been ill tempered and unduly rude to Hugh. She stopped, removed her right glove, and revealed the worst of the damage to the inside of her thumb, spreading towards her forefinger.
“That must have hurt.” Hugh peered at the jagged star-shaped scar. “Is it fully mended?
“The joint is stiff and still sore sometimes. A hard lump formed on the bone. I hope it goes away some day.”
They continued north, walking their horses, riding abreast.
“Can you write?”
“Yes. I wrote with my left hand for a couple months.”
“My father’s valet, Rudman, is left-handed,” Kate explained. “He taught me to use both hands for many purposes.”
“A valet? Teaching an earl’s daughter? That must be unusual. What did he instruct?”
I’m an idiot. I shouldn’t have told him. What can I mention? “The first lessons I remember, when quite young, was how to play a bugle – at which I failed in grand fashion.”
“Why a bugle?”
“He was a trumpeter in the Fifteenth Light Dragoons.”
“Ah, so I’d wager he taught you how to shoot.”
“First my father, then Rudman helped.” And fencing, and riding, and archery, and–
“So you shoot often and you’re very accurate – with either hand!”
“It’s considered vulgar recreation for young ladies. Please don’t tell anyone.”
“Of course, of course. How could I refuse your request? I’d do anything for you.”
“Hugh, please don’t say that.”
“Why not?” Hugh asked with a slight accent of petulance. “Isn’t that what friends do for each other?”
“Oh! Friends! Yes, we can be dear friends.”
Hugh didn’t respond. Kate glanced at him, and noted a bloodless complexion, clenched jaw, eyes fixed on the horizon. After perhaps a minute of awkward silence, Kate kicked up to a canter, jumped a wall, galloped across a field, plunged through a gap in a hedgerow, and found herself on a lane. Hugh emerged to her right.
“Shall we go by way of Freshford?” he asked.
Kate nodded her assent.
The remainder of the afternoon passed without incident, Kate choosing her words carefully, gauging Hugh’s expressions. Hugh acted the attentive and perfect gentleman, but Kate thought he seemed a trifle tired, or melancholy. She grew weary herself, the gamut of emotions experienced throughout the day taking a toll, but hid the fatigue and felt more concerned for Hugh, wanting him to be content, or at least not disappointed. High grey clouds covered the sky, a chill wind blew from the north-east. When they reached the riding school, Isabel stood patiently at the main doors. She wore her new cape and a visage of concern. Kate waved and called to her cheerily. Once again, Hugh dismounted and then lifted Kate down from her saddle. Grooms took the horses.
“I should settle my account,” Hugh said, removing his hat. “I have decided to leave Bath tomorrow. I must make a report of my findings. It will determine much of our stock purchases for the summer season.”
“This is goodbye, then.” Kate glanced at Isabel, who was collecting the saddlebags from a groom. She edged closer to Hugh. “For now.”
“May I call on you at Quantock Hall?”
“You may call on my father, and I will be home.”
“Very good, my lady.”
“Hugh, I want you to know, I promise, I’ll always remember this day fondly – the day we visited Farleigh Castle.” Kate waffled a heartbeat, then stretched up and softly kissed his cheek. She quickly retreated a step, turned, and took some of the bags from Isabel.
“So will I,” Hugh said sincerely. “Forever.” He bowed from the neck.
Kate performed a small curtsy. Hugh donned his hat at a jaunty angle, picked up his bag and disappeared into the riding school. Kate and Isabel hooked elbows and started along the narrow pavement of Montpelier Row, passing Christ Church, turning onto Brunswick Place.
“Well?” Isabel asked. “Did he behave as a gentleman?”
“Yes, in every way. Was there ever any doubt?”
“Did you ask him if he followed you?”
“Oh… that. I did.”
“It wasn’t him,” Kate replied casually. Actually… it may have been… despite his denials. But it doesn’t matter… he’s in love with me. God’s wounds! In love with me! “We cannot be certain anyone followed us. We could be accused of frivolous flights of fancy.”
“I’m not so sure.”
“Whatever.” Kate took a breath, then said, “We have something far more important to discuss.”
“Indeed. Has a man, an acquaintance, ever told you that he loves you?”
“Ah… I see…”