Somersetshire, late July 1847
Kate sharpened the lead of her pencil with a knife then continued adding details to her sketches. She sat at a desk in a bright window with a magnifying glass, inspecting dead insects collected the day previously during a nature walk with Mrs. Crozier. Throughout the exercise they traded phrases in Latin, going over words and pronunciation again and again.
“Eximus,” the decorum matron stated, peering over Kate’s shoulder with her quizzing glass. “Excellent.”
“Gratias… ego amo tractus. Thank you, I enjoy drawing.”
“She’s quite talented,” Miss Nestor said to Mrs. Crozier, then to Kate, “Perhaps I could help you with some colouring? We could try painting images of these creatures.”
“Certainly,” Mrs. Crozier said with a small nod. “You’ve come far with your Latin, my lady. I think you require a greater challenge.”
“What?! I mean, quid?!” Kate threw down her pencil. “Is there no end? I’ve worked so hard!”
“Temper…” Mrs. Crozier warned and raised a hand.
Kate flinched, then remembered herself and quickly sat up straight again, anger swelling, ready for the slap.
Miss Nestor retreated to the doorway with hands clasped at her throat. “Please don’t hit her again,” she whispered.
“Proverbs, thirteen-twenty-four, Miss Nestor. Spareth the rod…” Mrs. Crozier said coldly, then rounded on Kate. “And no, there is no end, my lady. Life is an education. There is always more to learn. Do not glare at me with that defiant gleam in your eye!”
“What do you have in mind,” Kate managed without too much venom.
“Russian. It will test your skill with a different alphabet – an ability to decipher a language completely foreign. We’ll make puzzles of it, with missives hidden throughout the estate, leading you to the next location. I believe you possess the intelligence to excel at such an exercise.”
“Thank you.” Kate felt rather flattered, her fury dissipating. “That sounds… quite fun.”
“Indeed. Now, time for your morning ride.”
Miss Nestor let out a sigh of relief and smiled.
“Hurrah!” Kate walked calmly from the parlour, then ran for her dressing room.
She rang for Isabel and started removing her sheer silk gown. When her maid arrived she helped Kate with her boots and corset, then a satin shirt and riding habit. Kate pulled on a peaked cap, kid-skin gloves, and marched to the front hall. She selected a bone-handled riding cane, petted Ebony and Cinders while a hall boy opened the door, then hurried outside. As usual, a groom stood waiting for her, Misty saddled and pawing impatiently at the gravel. Kate checked the girth and stirrup length, thanked the groom, took the reins, and led her mare to the mounting block.
Kate decided to head down towards the brook, go along the trail leading to the public-house at the Triscombe crossroads, then up into the village. Misty cantered easily upon the lane, and Kate let her gallop over the rough ground at the bottom of the valley; horse and rider as one in flight. They jumped two low stone walls and Kate thought she must be close to heaven. Upon reaching the cottages at the edge of Crowcombe, she reined back to a walk. Stopping to let Misty drink from a trough, Kate watched a couple men and boys mending thatch on a roof, then spied a neighbourhood girl of her age carrying a pair of buckets.
“Hello, Abby!” Kate dismounted and tied her horse where the mare could graze.
“Good day, m’lady Kat,” Abby replied merrily, her curly orange hair bouncing out from under her bonnet as she marched along.
Kate smiled down at her little friend, and thought how different they’d grown. “I’m Lady Kate, now. No more childish nicknames.”
“Oh… all right.” Abby affected a snooty accent. “You can call me, Lady Abigail.” She giggled, and nodded towards a door. “Come in, have some milk.”
Kate led the way into the cottage. “Are you all done for the day?” she asked, removing her riding cap, finding her hair askew. She untied the ribbon and sat at the table. “Would you plait my hair?” She should have let her maid do the task before setting out, but had not waited.
Abby placed the buckets down and fetched two mugs. “Finished milking, yes,” she nodded, “but I’ve started in the kitchens now. I have to be up at the house in time to help prepare the noon meal.”
“Oh…” Kate sighed, a little disappointed. It would have been nice to keep company with someone her age for awhile. As long as she could remember Abby worked at the Crowcombe Court dairy, milking every morning, even before church. That she found a placement within the manor was news. “How long have you been in the kitchen?”
“Just a fortnight, an’ it’s going very well. I might not be milking much longer.” Abby stepped behind Kate and started braiding tresses from the sides of her head.
“Are you glad?”
“O’ course. You don’t know how hard work it is.”
“No, I guess not.” Kate thought a bit, taking a long drink. “But if you’ve been doing it since you were five, shouldn’t it be easy now?”
“As you get older, they expect you to do more. When I started I wasn’t paid, I was helping my ma, and they gave her a little more. When she passed, I took her spot. Then I started making a few pence.”
Kate remembered when Abby’s mother died, five summers ago, from consumption. She could see the poor woman in her mind’s eye, practically a skeleton, clinging to a Bible at the Trinity Sunday service just before her death. Abby’s father remarried the following spring, and now she had two siblings.
“Stand up,” Abby ordered. “It’s easier fer twisting this long rope.” She had worked the hair into three even portions, and was ready to braid it down Kate’s back.
“How do you get along with your new mother, and your little brothers?” Kate asked getting to her feet, thinking of Miss Primrose and once again considering such a relationship.
“Well enough,” Abby said with a shrug. “I think my da spoils them all a bit. Doesn’t matter, I’ll be leaving this house soon enough.”
“Where will you go?” Kate felt dismay by her friend’s statement.
“Why, to my own home, when I wed.”
“Pardon me?! Wed?” The initial surprise turned to shock. “Are you to marry soon? To whom?”
Abby laughed at Kate’s reaction. “No, there’s no one yet. But in a year or two… An’ what about you? You’re almost a woman – more than me. Don’t you get shown off, in London? Then all the royal gentlemen line up for you.”
“Presented at court? To the queen.” Kate nodded. “I think it’s done at the new palace.” She thought about her father’s talk of needing to be an accomplished lady, Miss Crozier’s tutelage, and Miss Primrose insisting on a presentation in less than two years. Kate still wasn’t accepting the plans. “Yes, that will happen, but not for a few years. Perhaps when I’m sixteen or seventeen. Then men may notice me.”
“Kat, you have no idea.” Abby giggled and tied the braid with Kate’s ribbon. “Men are noticing you plenty now.”
“What?!” Kate swivelled towards her friend. “Who? Why?”
“Can’t you see? Yer tall, which makes you seem older, and…” Abby smiled mischievously and put her fists on hips. “Her hair is so shiny, like black silk.” She lowered her tone and thrust out her chin. “She has the biggest brightest eyes I ever seen. Perfect fair skin. What a pretty smile. She has such beautiful clothes…” Abby broke into a peal of high pitched laughter. “That last one was mine. I do love yer clothes.”
More concerned with the other observations, Kate asked, “I… you mean… men in the village talk about me? When do they ever look at me?”
“How could they miss you at church?”
“I hadn’t thought of that.” Kate briefly shuddered, feeling very self conscious.
“And they all saw you last Sunday at the games. That dress was beautiful.”
“Ah… it’s a walking suit,” Kate murmured, recalling the day.
“It looked like a ball gown to me.”
“With a waistcoat and jacket? It’s nothing like a ball gown.”
“I didn’t see you.”
“I was on t’other side of the cricket pitch, sitting with the village team. You looked like a fairy princess, promenadin’ back and forth.”
“I was not promenading! I…” Kate paused, wondering if that’s how she appeared to the cricket and football players.
“Well, the men saw you. I heard lots of ’em say so.”
“They probably talk about all the girls. What men is it?”
“Young men, o’ course, without wives.” Abby shrugged. “But they know yer above ’em.”
“Oh, yes, I’m above them,” she agreed, but didn’t feel confident. “I believe I have to marry whomever my father selects for me.”
“I’m free t’ pick my man,” Abby grinned. “Now, I must wash up an’ be gone.”
Kate stood in front of her friend’s cottage for a few moments, scanning the hills rising to the west, thinking about everything Abby had told her. She considered the many times men recently paid her particular attention; around London and the village, outside of church, the steeplechase on Midsummer Day… there seemed to be no end of pleasant men, young and old. Sauntering back to her horse, she glanced up at the thatchers to see if they noticed her, but the men toiled away without pausing. Leading her horse, Kate walked towards the medieval cross to use the steps to help her mount.
Coming the other way strode a large boy, coaxing a pair of oxen. Kate moved to the side of the lane under an ancient elm tree. When the boy drew near she recognised him as one of the field labourers who worked their estate property. Tall and broad shouldered, about seventeen or eighteen, he smiled and tipped his cap to her. In a blink Kate resolved to talk with him.
“Excuse me,” she called, giving a little wave, and a slight smile. I wonder if this is too bold?
“Ya, Miss? Ah, sorry, m’ lady?”
He brought the oxen to a halt and stepped up to Kate, removing his cap. She noticed clear light brown eyes, wavy brown hair, and his skin seemed to be pulled tight over the powerful muscles evident beneath a sweat-soaked shirt. His odour was somewhat offensive, but Kate found herself curiously attracted, seeing him rather like she would appreciate a fine stallion in a lather.
“You’re a ploughboy on my father’s land?”
“Ya,” he said flatly. “An’ some other farms.”
“What’s your name?”
“Jeremy Connor,” he replied, and then smiled.
“I know your father.” Kate found his smile infectious, and grinned back. “He’s a manager on our estate.”
“I know. He’s ma fadder.”
“Yes…” This is awkward. My face is getting hot. Oh no, I’m blushing! I must press on. “You’re one of his younger sons?”
“Ya, his second youngest.”
“Did we play ball years ago?” Yes… you tripped or pushed me into puddles more than once. “Do you remember knocking me about? Into the mud?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t recollect.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “By accident, maybe.”
Of course he denies it now. Perhaps he didn’t do it intentionally, like the cruel boys and girls. He has no idea how many times I ran home weeping. Hmm…
“You must know Miss Abigail Moffat?”
“Abby? Ta be sure, o’ course.” He nodded, then glanced down the lane towards the Moffat’s cottage.
“She’s a friend of mine,” Kate said. “We had lessons at church together. Do you attend the services?”
“Usually. I stand at the back.”
“Ah, yes.” Kate understood, he would be at the rear of the nave with the other single men, gathered by the font. Her family sat in a pew at the front, and were given the courtesy of being seated last and leaving first. So this is one of the young men who have been talking about me. What else do they say? “I’ve heard… that is, I mean… Abby mentioned, perhaps you, or some of your friends, might have spoken about me?”
Jeremy stood perfectly still, expressionless, staring at her. One of the oxen grunted.
Kate regretted asking, and grew hot all over. This was a mistake. I must get away. She cast her eyes down, and turned towards her horse. Oh pooh, I’ve muddled this, Father would expect me to stay calm. What would Mrs. Crozier say?! I’ve got to take command of the situation. “Help me mount, please?”
Jeremy put on his cap and quickly moved into position, bending over so Kate could use his entwined hands for assistance. Kate edged her skirt up, placed a shin into his hands, and steadied herself on the top pummel. He lifted her easily onto the saddle, then stood a moment, smoothing a hand over the animal’s neck while Kate adjusted her seat and skirting. She could feel where his strong grip pressed through the shaft of her boot.
“No one ever says anything but the best o’ you, or yer fadder.” Jeremy said quietly, “If I heard a bad word spoken, I’d give ’em a fight they wouldn’t soon forget.”
“Thank you, Jeremy.” Kate glowed, elated by his simple words. How charming.
“You’re welcome, m’ lady.” He removed his cap again, and stood still, staring up at her.
Kate sensed an awkward silence descending as she peered back into his eyes; noises muffled, her vision tunnelled around Jeremy’s face, everything in her periphery melted and swirled. Oh my, whew, I must say something… something… not about the weather…something…
“You need a bath,” Kate blurted out and immediately bit her tongue. What?! Goodness gracious! I’m an idiot! How rude.
“Ya, I know.” He smiled. “I go fer a swim most days.”
“You can swim?” Oh good, he’s not offended. “Where do you swim?”
“Depends where I’m working. Sometimes in the brook. Sometimes the pond in the woods across from your east pasture. Not the big pond, the little one, up the combe.”
“I know that pond well.” It was secluded, surrounded by forest, with a lovely patch of soft grass and a large flat rock. “Others… swim there.” Kate thought of the blonde under-gardener and Charlotte Nettles entwined on the grass. She pushed them from her mind. “I’d like to be able to swim better. Are you a good swimmer?”
“I am. It’s like anything – takes practice.” He shrugged. “I swim every hot day for most the summer, around noon. I go when I hear the bells.”
“Perhaps I will see you there someday.” Kate laughed, not knowing why.
“Ya.” Jeremy glanced up and grinned.
Kate felt faint and hot, like steam might gush from within her jacket. “I shouldn’t keep you from your labour,” she managed to say. “Thank you, for helping me.”
You’re welcome, m’ lady.” He replaced his cap, then went back to the oxen. Kate watched him get the beasts moving, admiring his powerful build, and quite graceful movements. She considered Jeremy for a while, wondering what it would be like to know him better, before riding in the other direction. As soon as she cleared the village, Kate halted and unbuttoned her jacket, heat pouring from within. She couldn’t stop smiling.
Jeremy is such a dear – and so handsome. What a day!