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Facing Mortality

Haverholme Priory, Lincolnshire, 8 July 1848

“I hope this goes well,” Lord Beaufort murmured to no one in particular as he glanced out a rain-streaked coach window.

Kate, sitting across from her father, perceived the concern in his voice and closed her book. She raised an eyebrow and stared at her father’s face, inviting conversation. What is it?

“Did you enjoy our visit with the Heathcotes?” he asked softly, obviously in a desire not to wake Jane and the maids, who were dozing.

“Very much,” Kate whispered. “I like the old baronet. Were we there for me to meet his grandson?”

“Not particularly, although he seems a decent lad.”

“I thought so. He’s attending Trinity College. I remember visiting Grimsthorpe before, a long time ago. How old was I?”

“Hmm… not so long ago. That was in Thirty-nine. You were five. The same summer we visited Scotland.”

“Oh! Yes…” Kate grinned at happy memories. “A wonderful holiday.” She then recalled how their talk began. “You’re concerned about our stay with the Hattons?”

Grimsthorpe Castle and Haverholme Priory.

“I am. It’s only for one night… but it will be a melancholy visit.”

“Why?” Kate pictured the Earl of Winchilsea, barrel-chested, laughing loudly at any excuse, always full of amusing stories, a little older than her father. How many times has he regaled us with acted recounts of his duel with the Duke of Wellington? She had seen him every spring in London at various events. “Lord George is such a jovial man.”

“He is when away from politics,” Lord Beaufort sighed. “No, it’s Lady Emily who concerns me. You need to know… she’s dying. That’s why we started this journey a week early.”

Thoughts cascaded in Kate’s mind, accompanied by a sharp pang in her heart. Lady Emily is beautiful, and much younger than Lord George. She’s always kind to me… quiet… perhaps frail? They don’t have children. Has she never been strong enough to carry a child? Were they in London this year? I don’t remember seeing them. How long has she been ill? “What’s wrong with her?”

“A wasting sickness.”

“Galloping consumption?”

“No, something else. Not a contagion.”

“Now I’m sad.”

“As am I, and Jane, and everyone who knows the Hattons. I waited to tell you the news, so it wouldn’t be on your mind. Her plight has been mentioned during our visits, but you weren’t privy to the conversations. We’re stopping to say goodbye to Lady Emily on her deathbed – that’s difficult. And we must offer some succour to Lord George. It’s a delicate balance, reflecting hope and joy, while being solemn and respectful.”

“I…” I have no idea how to behave. “I’ll try.”

“I know you will. Be helpful and friendly.”

They continued in silence, Kate peering out at the grey day, unable to enjoy The Maniac Father: or, The Victim of Seduction, A Romance of Deep Interest by Thomas Prest any longer, apprehension spreading with each passing mile. When their coach turned off the road onto the driveway leading to Haverholme Priory, Kate thought she might start weeping. Jane woke and talked merrily about their plans to visit Matlock Bath for a few days. The maids asked questions about which outfits should be ironed for the evening. All too soon, they pulled up at the front doors of Haverholme Priory. Rudman, Lord Beaufort’s valet, who had ridden outside with the driver, opened the door of the coach and unfolded the stairs. Lord Beaufort stepped out, then offered a hand to each lady and maid as they climbed down onto the gravel. A butler emerged from the mansion with a pair of footmen. While the servants tended to the luggage, Kate and her parents proceeded out of the rain and into the front hall.

“Hullo! Hullo!” Lord George came at them from the far end of the hall. “Beaufort! Thank you for coming!”

“Our pleasure, Hatton.” They shook hands. “A sad pleasure. We missed you in London this season.”

Lord George bear hugged Jane and Kate in turn. Kate thought he appeared older and greyer than she could have ever imagined.

“Everyone has been concerned for your dear wife, and you,” Lord Beaufort said quietly. “I remember she was weak when we saw you last year.”

“She’s never been strong, you know that. Often ill.” Lord George shook his head slowly, his eyes bloodshot. “She started fainting… then there were days I would find her, sobbing over nothing, in the garden, at the table… with no rhyme or reason! She couldn’t say what was wrong – she didn’t know! Then, I’m not certain when, she started losing weight. She hid it from me! She’s been bedridden for almost a year. It’s killing me to see her so.”

Images from the 1800s, depicting a young lady fainting, weeping, and bedridden.

“A tragedy,” Jane said gently.

“She’s a bit better today!” Lord George managed a smile. “Your timing is fortuitous. She’s awake now, and quite animated. Come and see her before the tincture takes hold again! We have her infirmary in the day room so she can look out all the windows.” He stomped from the hall into a corridor.

Servants stood close by, allowing the Beauforts to rapidly shed their hats and travel cloaks, then hurry after Lord George. The man had vanished. A woman wearing light grey with a white apron waved to them and indicated a door. Kate entered the room but didn’t move towards the bed, staying well behind her parents. She took in the windows, wet green lawns beyond, the curtains, a desk, a toilet table, chairs, vases of flowers, then locked her eyes on Emily and froze. The lady sat in bed, propped up by pillows. She was ashen and thin, but beautiful, possessing a quiet dignity, her hair up and covered by a lace cap, wearing a white felt bed jacket edged with pale blue silk ribbon. Scattered upon the bed lay papers and books. People were talking, yet Kate couldn’t hear distinct words, simply a murmuring in different tones. She watched as Lady Emily’s large expressive and weary eyes shifted around the room to the different speakers, then they settled on Kate.

“Woh oo lie to it ith m a ile ate?”

Kate blinked, swallowed, trying to decipher Lady Emily’s words. I must get control of myself. “Pardon?” she squeaked, then, “Pardon?” louder. There’s my voice. I can hear it…

“Would you like to sit with me for awhile?” Lady Emily asked with a small smile.

What do I say? What should I do?

“Would you like to sit with Lady Emily for awhile?” Jane asked while placing a hand on Kate’s back.

“Yes, of course,” Kate replied, gliding forward, prompted by Jane’s gentle push.

“We’ll leave you, for now, my dear,” Lord George said. “We’ll be in the drawing room. The nurse will be just outside the door.”

Kate stood uncomfortably beside the bed, feeling guilty about being so effortlessly hale and hearty, while her parents left the room with Lord George. The sweet perfume of flowers filled her nose, but a sour scent lay beneath.

“Sit,” Lady Emily invited, stretching to shift some of the papers out of the way.

“Let me.” Kate collected together what she discerned to be correspondence and placed them on a night stand. She then perched on the edge of the bed and, gathering her strength, gave her full attention to Lady Emily, gazing squarely into her eyes.

“How do you feel about Hugh?” Lady Emily asked.

“Pardon?” How does she know? “Which Hugh?”

“Oh, my! Ha ha! There’s more than one? Yes, of course there is, probably dozens, ha ha! Lord Grosvenor. Jane said he called on you in London and at Quantock Hall.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t listen. Yes, Lord Grosvenor called on my father, but it was to see me.” Should I tell her? I haven’t mentioned it to anyone yet, even with all Jane’s questions. “He requested… asked me… to consider an engagement. Please don’t tell a soul.”

“You like Hugh?”

“I do.”

“But you didn’t commit?”

“No.”

“Did he set terms?”

What? Oh… “There wasn’t talk of a dowry… or property… or whatever. He wants a promise, that we might wed in three years. I’ll be seventeen – which seems reasonable.”

“It does.”

“We would have a two-year engagement, beginning the day I’m presented at court next spring.”

“And… there’s another Hugh?”

“A wealthy merchant’s son. We… I’m… he’s not suitable. I told him. He sails for China next week. It is best he travels without thinking any further of me.”

“I would wager all the gold in England he will think and dream about you.”

Kate didn’t reply. During their conversation she had studied the poor woman, dismayed to see her in such a weakened state.

“You have become a striking young lady,” Lady Emily said after a moment, reaching out to touch a wayward lock of hair on Kate’s forehead. “Such rich black hair, and large bright eyes.” She sighed. “I remember you as a tomboy, but you were always the prettiest girl at any gathering.”

“Thank you,” Kate replied softly. “You’re still beautiful.”

“Ha! I’m an old lady now, ready to die.”

“You’re not old,” Kate insisted, distress clutching her heart and stomach.

“I’ll be thirty-nine tomorrow. That is growing old! You’ll be able to wish me a happy birthday before you continue on your holiday. Then I’ll get on with dying.”

“No…” Kate said, her throat constricting, “you shouldn’t be…”

Lady Emily offered her arms and Kate fell into her embrace, shoulders shaking, weeping into the soft wool of her bed jacket.

“It’s not fair,” Kate managed to choke out between sobs. She felt the woman’s diminutive torso and withered muscles. “It’s not fair.”

“Fair? Life isn’t fair. I’ve been ill most of my life. It’s time for me to have some peace. Some peace – that would be fair.”

Kate sat back and pulled a handkerchief from a pocket, dabbed her eyes and nose. “Were you ailing all those times we played games? All the times I saw you in London?”

George William Finch-Hatton, 10th Earl of Winchilsea.

“Probably.”

“Is that why you never had children?”

“Oh… we tried. I wanted to have children… but, no matter. My parents are dead. I’ve no children to keep me here. My brothers and sisters are scattered all over the world. I have only my husband to forsake.”

“And your friends,” Kate corrected. “We’ll miss you, and mourn your passing. Lord George will miss you terribly.”

“Yes, but he can marry again. Father more children. He only had a son with his first wife.”

“You make it sound of business. It’s not.”

“No, ha ha, you speak true. I’m writing a poem for Georgie, to ease his mourning, I hope. Would you like to read it?”

Without waiting for an answer Lady Emily lifted an ink splattered paper from the far side of the bed and handed it to Kate. Four lines with several corrections were scribbled on the paper. Kate read it aloud.

“When the bell for the dying, has rung for me, and my body is cold and lying, beneath a tree.
Once the turf grave diggers are heaping, covers my breast, come not to gaze on me weeping, for I am at rest.
Long since my heart has been breaking, the hurt is past, a time has been set to its aching, peace comes at last.
All my life coldly and badly, the years have run by, I who loved wildly and madly, am content to die.”

By the end Kate found the words difficult to read as she blinked back tears. “All your life cold and bad? But you loved wildly and madly? How does that feel? I’ve read of love in novels, but you put it better with few words. Why deem it bad? To love so!” She dabbed the tears from her cheeks.

“There now, don’t take it so much to heart. I’m still crafting the rhymes. Badly might be the wrong word. I did love wildly and madly, but when I was closer to your age, long before I met Georgie, whilst my family dwelt in Saint Petersburg. He was a dashing prince. There are a great deal of Russian princes – where they all come from is a mystery! Unfortunately, the love flourished on my side alone. I believe it was more of a dream than love. A dream of what love could be, or should be. My love for Georgie is deep… profound.”

“And you’re truly content to die? You desire nothing more?”

“Hmm… content? That may be the wrong word too. I’ll think on it. In the end, I simply want Georgie to know I am at peace.”

“I don’t have any suggestions. This poem makes me sad.”

“A sweet sorrow?”

“Oh…” I’ve never considered sorrow as sweet.

“I’ll amend further. The timing isn’t correct, and I want it sound classical. Don’t be sad. Not for me. I’m very happy we had this talk.”

“I am too.”

They hugged again.

“Now, I think I’m ready for a nap.” Lady Emily slid down the pillows and pulled up the blankets. “Send the nurse in please.”

Kate tiptoed silently from the room. The nurse, sitting on a fly chair in the hall, rose and entered upon Kate’s exit, no words needed. Kate didn’t go to the drawing room, instead wandering through corridors and halls, disheartened and lost in thought. How can death be a sweet sorrow? I don’t understand such a notion. If I caught a contagion, or wasting sickness, I would have to be brave. Even if I was frightened, or angry, I’d act cheerful, so no one need grieve too deeply. Perhaps if I suffered for years I might be content to die. But who could be content to die if they are wildly and madly in love? Will I ever feel that way about someone?
My goodness… Hugh Wansbrough and Hugh Grosvenor!
No… it cannot be.
Do they feel that way about me?!

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Note: Lord George commissioned an effigy of Lady Emily. It was carved by Lawrence MacDonald (1799 – 1878) in Rome of white Carrara marble. The monument portrays Lady Emily in a classical form, reclining on a day-bed, wearing a loose robe and sandals, and reading a scroll, inscribed: I AM HAPPY INDEED, HAPPY IN THE WORD, GOD IS WAITING FOR ME. She was interred in the chancel of the Church of St. Andrew, Ewerby, Lincolnshire. Her effigy was installed in St. Mary’s Church, Eastwell, Kent, with other monuments to the Finch-Hatton family. In the 1950s the church had fallen into disrepair and the roof collapsed but the statues within were removed and placed in the care of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

 

 



 
  • Sami

    What a treat to have discovered this entertainment. I will be back on a rainy day.

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