Quantock Hall, early March 1848
“It’s your old dog, my lady.”
From her position at the threshold of the front door, Kate looked fireside, Cinders’ usual spot of repose. She knew something was amiss as she entered from her morning ride, by the upset expressions of Smythe, the butler, and Wade, a young footman. A sour and pungent odour filled the air. Kate thrust her riding cane at Wade and strode to the hound.
“What’s the matter, boy?” Kate asked, kneeling beside the dog on the hearth rug.
Cinders whined and struggled to rise, his hind legs apparently paralysed, a puddle of urine soaking the rug.
“He’s going to make a mess of it,” Smythe warned, wrinkling his nose.
“He wants to go out,” Kate said, her vision blurring. “Help me get him outside!”
Wade dropped the cane and ran to Kate’s assistance. Between them, they lifted the dog with the rug as a sort of litter and hurried through the doorway, only slowing for the few steps up and down. They set the stricken animal on the front walk just as his bowels emptied. Ebony barked, ran in circles, then hid in some nearby shrubs with a mournful howl. Kate removed her gloves, cuffed some tears, and focused on Cinders and his distress. Smythe emerged from the manor and peered at the dog.
“Fetch a hall boy to clean up,” Smythe ordered Wade.
“What’s to be done?” Kate asked, holding Cinders around the neck and stroking his broad flat head.
“He’s almost as old as you. There’s nothing to be done.”
“Look at him.” Smythe shuffled near and stooped over, his face close to Kate’s. He whispered, “He’s been fading for about six months. It’s time to put him to rest.”
Kate took a moment to digest his words, and run a hand over the spine and ribcage of her old friend. She pressed her face to his, smelt his fur and stale breath.
“I’ll ask a game warden to take care of him,” Smythe said.
“No!” Kate wailed. She quickly considered the options.
Kate’s father and stepmother, along with their servants, were in London, having proceeded there after staying in Bath, and then remaining when word of rioting in Paris reached England. The abdication of King Louis Philippe and the re-establishment of a republic put the British into a tizzy, with talk of war. This French revolution had come on the heels of fighting in Sicily, and the latest news told of uprisings in the Grand Duchy of Baden and the Kingdom of Bavaria, German royal families under threat from their subjects. Speculation of further unrest was mooted from every coffee house to drawing room throughout Britain.
“I’ve just heard.” Miss Nestor came scurrying to Kate’s side. The governess took off her wool shawl, her only protection for the cool breeze, and placed it over Cinders. “Come inside, my lady. The men will deal with this.”
“No, I will.” Kate pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and wiped away her tears, then rose to her full height and looked down at the small elderly man and tiny woman. “Mr. Smythe, have a barrow and garden spade brought around,” she said firmly. Kate knew her governess as a kind woman who cared for all creatures, and she would comfort the dog as best she could. “Miss Nestor, please stay with Cinders. I will… I’ll be quick.”
Kate passed Wade and a hall boy in the front hall as she ran towards the gun room at the back of the medieval wing. I wish Father, Rudman, or Reynolds were here. They would help me. They know how to handle a pistol. Of course a game warden would do it, but I don’t truly know any of them, and they would be rough and cold. Cinders, poor old Cinders. My dear old friend deserves… Kate entered the gun room and opened an armoire containing a variety of pistols. She located the four-shot pepperbox revolver Jack had given to her a year ago and loaded it with shaking hands, having to take some calming breaths and growling with frustration. It seemed to take forever as she fiddled with the percussion caps, then took a satchel down from a peg, stowed the pistol within, and ran back to the front hall. Upon stepping outside, she was distraught to find Miss Nestor shivering and hugging Ebony, Smythe and Wade standing on the gravel, and two men (one toting a shotgun) rolling Cinders away in a wheelbarrow.
“Stop!” Kate demanded, her soft voice straining.
“Kate…” Miss Nestor gently placed a hand on her arm, “let them go.”
“No! This is something I have to do!” Kate threw the satchel over a shoulder, snatched her gloves from the walk, then strode after the men, angry and hot. “Stop this instant!” She caught them while pulling on her gloves. Cinders lay awkwardly in the wheelbarrow, his head hanging off the front, Miss Nestor’s shawl bunched under his shoulders, a spade across his body. Kate almost lost control of herself. Grrrr! “You are not needed,” she snarled. “Go about your business.” She quickly rotated the dog around with his head at the back of the wheelbarrow, folded his legs to a sleeping position, covered him with the shawl, and placed the spade to one side.
“Stay, Ebony, stay!” Kate commanded her retriever. “Miss Nestor, please take her inside. I don’t want her following me. I cannot do this with her watching.”
Kate gathered her skirt, grasped the handles of the wheelbarrow, raised it, found a balance, then with short quick steps hurried along the gravel and turned onto a walkway leading beside the west wing of the manor. Upon reaching the large imposing statue of the Beaufort family yale, she stopped, stroked Cinders’ head and, peering around, thought of what to do. Is anyone following me? No – that’s good. She took off the satchel and placed it in an empty space of the wheelbarrow. Where am I going? Any glade in the woods would do… but I know the perfect spot. She gathered her skirt again and left the walkway, followed the edge of some brambles, passed behind the cider house, and emerged onto a small lane, coming face-to-face with Billie, the oldest groom employed in their stables. The man carried the hunting saddle Kate had been using to practise jumping in a south-west pasture less than twenty minutes previously. He stared at her through cloudy eyes.
“Who be there?” he asked. “Is that…?”
“Yes, Billie, it’s Kat.” Only with this old man did Kate retain her childhood nickname. “I’ve got Cinders in a barrow – he can’t walk – and I’m…” Kate’s throat constricted, “I’m taking him to my swing.”
“Why?” Billie placed the saddle on a wall beside the cider house and crouched over the dog, fondling his floppy ears. “Good ol’ boy, eh,” he muttered. “Good ol’ boy.” Cinders sighed. “Why you goin’ up there?”
“I have to shoot him,” Kate said softly, and let the words replay in her head several times, not believing herself. “It’s time to put him out of his misery. He’s dying.”
“Poor ol’ boy,” Billie muttered, running his hands over the dog. “They’ll do the same ta me soon.” He glanced at Kate. “Do you recollect? It were summer – hot. You weren’t no more than six or seven. The day you asked me ta make a door?”
“Of course,” Kate replied, feeling warmed and nostalgic by the memory.
* * *
Kate, her long hair wild, wearing a simple knee-length light-weight dress, ran with Cinders down from the hills and entered the stable yard. The ground felt hard and uneven beneath her slippers, the summer sun baking the poached earth into a haphazard lace of mud, manure, and straw. She entered the stable and spotted a groom working on a stall.
“Mr. Billie,” she yelled, “I’d like some timber, please!”
“Good day, Miss Kat.” The man turned from his repair. Cinders ran to him with wagging tail. “Good boy!” He fondled his ears. “Wha’s that you say, Missy?”
“I’d like some timber, please. The same you’re using to mend the stall.”
“Do you have an idear of length an’ breadth?”
“No… about as long as me. And a hand or two wide. Four or five planks would be fine.”
“They would? An’ wha’ are they fer?”
“Ummm…” Kate wanted to maintain her secret. “To fashion a gate.”
“So you need nails and hinges.”
“I need… might you put the gate together?”
“Would a square do?”
“Yes. No. A triangle, with the point cut off would work.”
“Tha’s unusual.” Billie chuckled. “Where’s this gate ta be hung?”
Kate hesitated, then decided to take the old groom into her confidence. She whispered, “Near my swing on the big oak, on the trail that goes up behind the cider house, a little beyond, on top a wall, I have a hide.”
“In amongst the beeches?”
“Yes. Beside my swing. And the sheep get in… and foul it.”
“So this is a door, ta be hung from a tree.”
“That’s right.” Kate nodded vigorously.
Billie gathered his tools and planks and followed Kate. He walked slowly up the hill, mopping sweat from his face, Kate carried a plank and ran ahead, Cinders darted to and fro, barking and panting. At the wall, Billie measured the opening in the beeches, then set to work, easily crafting a small door, and attaching it to a tree with broad straps of leather.
“Thank you, Mr. Billie!” Kate exclaimed in delight. She entered the hide, pulled the door closed, and took up a wooden sword.
“What’s tha’ fer?” Billie asked.
“I’m the sentinel sergeant-major! Keeping the shepherds on The Drove safe from highwaymen.”
“Tell me, Sergeant-major Kat, why would highwaymen bother the shepherds?”
“Oh… I don’t know.”
Billie chuckled and opened the door for the dog to enter. “Ain’t very big, your hide,” he observed.
“No, ’tisn’t. But there’s room for me, and Cinders.” Kate hugged her dog and considered the space for a moment. “And perhaps some rabbits… should they decide to join us. Cinders is gentle as a lamb, but the rabbits don’t know that yet.”
* * *
“Is your hide still there?” Billie asked.
“No, not for a long time.”
“You spent many days up there with Cinders,” Billie said, still stroking the dog.
“I did,” Kate replied. “Happy days.”
“His coat were mostly black, back then. He’s gone grey now, hasn’t he?”
“Yes, quite so,” Kate confirmed, wondering how much longer it would be before Billie’s cataract-obscured vision completely failed. Cinders’ eyes were clouded too, but Kate didn’t mention that fact to the old man. “I should get on with this.”
“Right.” Billie nodded and slowly straightened up. “I’ll help ya.”
“No, thank you. I want to do this alone.”
“Oh, arr. Well… I’ll wait here for ya then. Just because.” He sat on a stone beside the saddle. “A pipe or two – tha’s wha’s called fer.” From a pocket he produced a small briar and tobacco pouch.
“You won’t catch cold?” Kate asked, genuinely concerned about a frail old man sitting out in the damp cool weather.
“Never a cold can catch me!” Billie retorted. “Leave yer skirt.”
“Ah, yes. Good idea.”
Kate and Billie met frequently at a south-west pasture so she could practice riding astride and jumping. She would depart the manor in a habit, riding side-saddle, then remove her skirt and change saddles upon meeting Billie. Of course, she wore riding pants under her skirt. Kate hoped one day soon it would be acceptable for her to ride astride overtly, as she intended to compete in steeplechase races that summer, and wanted to blend in with the male jockeys. She unbuttoned her skirt and draped it over Billie’s legs. He smiled, pawing the lush fabric.
“Try not to get it any filthier than it already is,” Kate said. “And don’t burn any holes in it!”
“Never fear, Kat, never fear.”
Kate hoisted the wheelbarrow and continued on the lane, passed the turn to the stable yard, then started along the trail beside an ancient stone wall, leading up into the hills. She loved this trail, the red stones, the twisted trees, the steep pastures, the promise of evermore spectacular views with every step, and the chance of seeing wild horses and deer. It seemed odd to walk this way without a dog at her side. Throughout her childhood, Cinders had been her constant companion. Then, for a brief time when Kate was eleven years of age, Ebony made them a trio, with all her boisterous puppy energy. Kate couldn’t remember exactly when Cinders stopped following her farther than a mile or two from the manor, and Ebony became her best friend, eager for any expedition.
Pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with a large dog up a hill proved much harder than Kate anticipated. On several occasions she almost tipped Cinders over when navigating a bump, stone, or root. It wasn’t the physical effort so much as the time required and body heat generated. Sections of the incline were quite steep. She stopped to comfort the dog often, removed her jacket and placed it under his head and shoulders, and stuffed her bonnet inside the satchel. The cool air on her scalp brought relief from a growing headache. Kate thought she might be halfway to the oak tree when she spied men to her left, on the side of the neighbouring hill, moving among the sheep. Lambing season had come to an end, and the newborns were running with the flock, monitored by the shepherds.
Kate felt her heart lift and her stomach sink when she recognized one of the young men helping the shepherds. Jeremy Connor, lean and broad-shouldered, in rough work clothes, trudged slowly up a steep embankment with three lambs, following the flock. Kate knelt and tightened the straps of her brother’s old cobbled top boots, providing time to think. Can I let him see me dressed like this? I haven’t thanked him for walking me home from the gypsy camp. It’s been almost three months. Has it been too long? I should have made a point of talking to him after church one day, but… oh… “Jeremy Connor!” Kate called. “Jeremy Connor!”
The men all stopped and faced Kate’s direction.
Drat. I wish the other men would keep going. Do they see me?
The trail ran beside a wall, with trees and brush, effectively hiding Kate and the wheelbarrow.
“Jeremy Connor!” Kate called again and waved both arms, knowing the white sleeves of her shirt would show better than any other parts of her clothing; a beige waistcoat and riding pants. “Please come here!”
Kate faintly heard the men talking and some laughter. Jeremy started plodding in her direction, cutting sideways along one hill, to cut back upon the next, without having to ascend or descend very much. He drew near, his eyes widened and his lips parted in a look of surprise, then he removed his cap, revealing short cropped brown hair.
“M’lady,” he said plainly.
“You were expecting someone else?”
“Is it my outfit?”
“Na.” He squinted at her a moment. “Ya.”
“These are breeches,” Kate explained, “for riding… similar to what men wear… many women wear them… under their skirts…”
“What do you want?”
“Ah… yes.” Kate paused, momentarily taken aback by his brevity. She didn’t discern any kind of a rude or impatient accent in his tone and edged closer. “First, Jeremy, I’d like to thank you, for serving as my escort the evening we met at the gypsy camp.”
“It were… no bother, m’lady.”
“And, I understand, you trounced a duo of the village blackguards who were telling unseemly tales about us.”
“I knocked some sense into a pair o’ liars. Is that what you mean?”
“Indeed, yes. Thank you. I have another favour to ask.”
Kate explained her situation. Jeremy leaned over the dog, petted his head, then picked him up, swaddled in the shawl, cradling him like a sheep. Kate grabbed the satchel and spade, abandoning the wheelbarrow, and ran ahead, knowing Jeremy would follow her to the swing. She reached the oak tree, searched the ground for only a moment, then started digging in a natural depression. Jeremy arrived and placed Cinders on the grass beneath the tree.
“Thank you,” Kate said, still digging. “I can manage now.”
“You need a big hole.”
“A grave. Yes.”
“I’ll dig,” Jeremy said. “You can sit awhile with yer hound.”
“It’s fine. I’m fain to do this on my own.”
“Give me the spade.” Jeremy held out a stained mitt of a hand. “I helped carry him up here. I want… be part o’ the… o’ the…”
Without another word, Kate surrendered the tool and Jeremy set to work. His formidable size and heavy boots (the soles reinforced by metal toe and heel caps) carved the soil, displaying little effort as he cut through roots and pried out rocks. Kate removed her gloves and curled up with Cinders under the shawl, drawing his head and shoulders onto her lap, holding her face to his furry cheek. The dog struggled to rise a few times, whined pitifully, and sighed. Kate watched Jeremy, appreciating his brute strength, feeling perfectly safe in his presence. The young man represented honesty and trustworthiness; he possessed no guile. Indeed, while Kate couldn’t be certain of Hugh Wansbrough’s words or motives, she felt Jeremy incapable of deceit. Which between the two young men better defined a gentleman?
“That should be good,” Jeremy said, stepping from the hole. “He’ll have to go in round, like sleeping.”
Kate shook from her reverie. Jeremy’s words, though softly spoken, jarred her. The time had come to deliver a merciful killing shot. “Thank you, Jeremy, again. Please leave us now.”
“Yer sure?” He crouched down in front of Kate, wringing his cap, his light brown eyes intense with concern. “I could stay. Help you.”
Kate almost reached out for a hug. Her vision blurred. “No…” she mewled, “leave us, please.” She closed her eyes and let her head fall back against the tree. The tumult of emotions hurt her heart. Kate could feel him watching her. Tears ran down her cheeks, onto her neck, and soaked into her lace collar. Her throat and stomach ached. Cinders whined. She opened her eyes. Jeremy was gone. Suddenly, Kate felt cold. The grey sky threatened rain, and a cool breeze dried the trails of her tears.
“I’m sorry, Cinders,” Kate whispered, shifting out from under his limp body. “Here we go.”
Kate managed to pick him up, straining in the effort to be gentle under the awkward weight, and carried him a few paces beside the hole. As she carefully placed him down, he managed to stand, his rear legs trembling. For a blink, Kate thought there had been a miracle cure, but then saw the dog looking at her with red-rimmed eyes, unable to take even a single step, bones protruding at his hips and shoulders. She dashed to the satchel and drew the pistol, cocking the hammer as she returned and stood at his side. Once again, Kate ran a hand over his head, then straightened, aiming the pistol behind his left ear.
“Goodbye, old friend,” she said softly.
Kate shut her eyes and squeezed the trigger.
The report of the discharge was followed by a sigh and the sound of an impact on the turf, then a shocking repeated thumping. Kate opened her eyes, cocking the pistol for a second shot if necessary, and saw Cinders on his side, his tail beating the ground, wagging in what seemed to be joy. Kate dropped to her knees and placed an ear to his torso; no breathing, no heartbeat. The wagging lessened… stopped. She wept bitterly, for several minutes, snivelling, shoulders shaking, her face buried in the side of her dear pet. Finally, with shuddered gasps, she rose, made the pistol safe and stowed it in the satchel, utilized a handkerchief, then gathered Cinders into a ball and eased him into the hole. She saw the bullet wound several times, and an exit wound, but the gore didn’t bother her; she knew it had been a very quick death. The old hound looked peaceful, like he was merely sleeping.
Kate slipped on her gloves and recited Ecclesiastes chapter three, verses one through eight, while shovelling the earth into the grave. Finally, her eyes filling with tears once again, she gathered some red stones from the nearby wall and placed them on the burial, forming a heart-shape, with the intention of planting flowers another day.
Kate wrapped her shoulders with Miss Nestor’s shawl and sat on the swing. She looked out at the Bristol Channel and the hills of Exmoor, already wet with drizzle, black clouds rolling across the sky. I must get down this hill and tell Billie everything is fine, otherwise he’ll sit out in the rain waiting for me. And Miss Nestor will be worried, and Mr. Smythe. Oh! And Bonny, poor Bonny! I’ll take her for a run. Kate slung the satchel over a shoulder and picked up the spade, then, in her periphery, made out a form. Jeremy stood perfectly still, on the crest of the neighbouring ridge.
Kate waved to him. “I’m all right,” she called.
He waved back, then disappeared over the ridge.
“I’m all right,” Kate said again, to herself, and started running down the trail.